By Chris Block
Looking to build on recent winning ways and retain their first place standing in the Midwest Division, the Rockford IceHogs played host to division rival Milwaukee Admirals, winners of three of its last four games. Milwaukee also entered Friday’s contest riding a five-game point streak (3-0-2-0) as they recently have welcomed Ryan Ellis, Gabriel Bourque and Taylor Beck back into their lineup.
The IceHogs rose atop their division in winning 7 of its last 9 games, going from two games under .500 on Nov 16 to three games above .500 and in first place on Dec 2nd.
Friday also was the first of five meetings between the two clubs this month. Milwaukee came into Rockford on Nov 10 and skated away with a 4-2 victory. That night, the first of 12 times these two clubs will face off this regular season, Alec Richards was between the pipes for Rockford.
On Friday, Carter Hutton, the starter in the IceHogs last three games, all wins in which Hutton allowed a total of five goals, was back to face a Milwaukee team he went 8-1 versus last season.
Hutton was strong early Friday night but struggled to bail his teammates out when miscues and mental lapses plagued Rockford during a three-goal Milwaukee 2nd period.
The Admirals scored three goals in 3:47, all at even-strength to take command of the game until the IceHogs got a tongue-whipping from head coach Ted Dent during the second intermission.
“Coach (Dent) challenged us in the room,” said Adam Clendening. “He said we hadn’t been playing that well. He challenged us to show what we got in the third – hopefully come back or at least play a better twenty (minutes) than we did in the second (period).”
Rockford came out rejuvenated and determined in the third period – scored 4 unanswered goals of their own – and finished off the Admirals by a final score of 5-3 before a crowd of 3,522 at the BMO Harris Bank Center in Rockford.
“We weren’t good,” Dent said of his team’s performance through two periods Friday.
“I challenged them to be better. And I challenged our leadership group to rise to the occasion. And they did. I told them (after the game) they shoved it up my You-know-what.”
That leadership group did rise to the occasion as Nick Leddy, Ben Smith, Brandon Pirri and Martin St. Pierre all tallied in the final twenty minutes. Clendening picked up two assists, both via the power play.
“We got lucky, got a couple of bounces and a couple of good tips,” said Clendening. “And it ended up going our way.”
Rockford’s record improved to 13-9-0-1 with the victory and kept the IceHogs one point ahead of Grand Rapids, who shut out the Chicago Wolves 3-0 in Rosemont, Illinois on Friday night. The IceHogs play host to Chicago on Saturday, and then travel to Grand Rapids for a Sunday afternoon contest where first-place will be on the line if the IceHogs don’t defeat the Wolves.
Rob Flick got the home team on the board first on Friday when he ripped a wrist shot over Jeremy Smith’s glove hand at 9:13 of the opening period. Pete Leblanc and Shawn Lalonde picked up the assists as the 4th line got on the scoresheet for the first time in 5 games. For Flick, it was his second goal of the season and just his second goal in his last 22 games dating back to last season.
With 8:16 to go in the second, Carter Hutton was beat when Michael Latta tipped a Ryan Ellis blast from the right point by the stunned netminder. Latta’s tip beat Hutton inside the far post to tie the score 1-1. Ellis and Gabriel Bourque assisted on Latta’s 3rd goal of the season.
Three minutes later Bourque beat Hutton inside the near post with a shot of his own to give the Admirals a 2-1 lead. Mark Van Guilder and defensemen Mattias Ekholm assisted on Bourque’s 3rd goal in the 9 games he’s been healthy for this season.
Milwaukee wasn’t done with their second period surge, though. A minute and seven seconds after Bourque gave the Admirals the lead, Victor Bartley found a bouncing puck low in the right circle and backhanded it towards the far post and over Hutton’s blocker to increase Milwaukee’s lead to 3-1. Hutton had allowed 3 goals on 11 shots against at this point.
“It was all kind of a whirlwind, actually,” explained Clendening when asked what went wrong during that 3:47 stretch.
“We maybe got a little comfortable and we didn’t play the hardest. And we started to turnover pucks and had trouble getting out of our own end. And things just kind of escalated. It was just kind of a whirlwind and one thing leads to another.”
Rockford began the third period short-handed as a result of Jeremy Morin getting called for interference as time expired in the sandwich stanza. Carter Hutton stayed between the pipes for the third period and came up three big stops during Milwaukee’s power play to keep the IceHogs within two goals of at least tying the game.
Chris Mueller was sent to the box for the second time in the game, this time for pulling down Ben Smith as Smith stickhandled through the slot after some great efforts by Brett Lebda, Brandon Saad and Marcus Kruger to keep the Admirals pinned inside their own zone for over a minute. Smith jumped on for Morin as the IceHogs thwarted every Milwaukee attempt to clear the zone and Smith then used his fresh set of legs to draw the penalty on his drive to the net.
The IceHogs seized the opportunity to push back within a goal when Nick Leddy’s shot from the left point sailed over the blocker shoulder of Jeremy Smith and inside the near post at 6:19 of the third frame to trim Milwaukee’s lead to 3-2. An opening on Leddy’s side of the ice opened as Clendening and Brandon Pirri played catch off the wall on the right side of the ice. Clendening quickly fired off a pass to Leddy at the left point and Leddy’s quick slap shot appeared to redirect off a Ben Smith tip in front of Smith. Officially, the goal was credited to Leddy but after the game several IceHogs players indicated Smith did indeed tip the shot.
An ill-advised offensive zone tripping penalty against Milwaukee’s leading scorer Austin Watson pulled Lebda down, giving Rockford another power play try with 7:53 to go in regulation.
13 seconds in, Clendening threw a puck on goal looking for a Ben Smith redirect in front. That’s exactly what he got. What was to be a routine save on Clendening’s chance, Smith redirected and through Jeremy Smith’s five-hole to tie the game at 3-3. Officially it marked Smith’s 9th goal of the season. However, if the scoring is changed on the IceHogs second goal, Smith would surpass Jeremy Morin’s 9 tallies as Rockford’s goal scoring leader.
The IceHogs continued to build on its newfound momentum the very next shift when Brandon Pirri potted his 8th goal of the season off a terrific passing sequence and feed from captain Martin St. Pierre. The second assist went to Andrew Shaw who led the rush over the Milwaukee blue line after a feed up the middle from Ryan Stanton. Rockford scored two goals in 39 seconds to take a 4-3 lead with 7:01 remaining in regulation time.
“Stants made a good breakout pass,” said Pirri. “Shawzy did what we’re trying to do – get the puck wide. And Saintsy does what Saintsy does.”
Martin St. Pierre also sealed the IceHogs 13th victory, and extended his personal goal-scoring streak to four games, on an empty-net goal with 25.6 seconds left of the game clock. The goal was the captain’s 9th overall, and fifth in the last four games.
Carter Hutton stopped 21 of Milwaukee’s 24 shots in route to his 50th career professional victory.
In his last nine starts against the Admirals, Hutton is undefeated with a 95.2% save percentage and a 1.39 goals against average.
The Admirals and IceHogs next meet on Friday Dec 14 in Milwaukee. Then Dec 19 (on Carter Hutton’s 27th birthday) and 21st, both in Milwaukee as well. Rockford will host the Admirals again on Sat Dec 29th
–Rockford’s lines, pairings & scratches Friday versus Milwaukee….
Brandon Saad – Marcus Kruger – Jeremy Morin
Martin St. Pierre – Jimmy Hayes – Ben Smith
Andrew Shaw – Brandon Pirri – Kyle Beach
Rob Flick – Pete Leblanc – Brandon Bollig
Nick Leddy – Adam Clendening
Klas Dahlbeck – Ryan Stanton
Brett Lebda – Shawn Lalonde
Carter Hutton (starter)
Alec Richards (backup)
Scratches: D-Dylan Olsen, D-Joe Lavin (broken right wrist), W-Brandon Svendsen (right arm), W-Wade Brookbank….
Injuries: W-Brandon Svendsen (right arm)… D-Joe Lavin (broken right wrist)
Power play I: Saad-Kruger-Morin w/ Leddy & Clendening
Power play II: St. Pierre-Pirri-Smith w/Lebda & Lalonde
PK forwards: Kruger-Saad, St.Pierre-Hayes, Shaw-Smith
PK defense: Dahlbeck-Stanton, Leddy-Lalonde
-On hand taking in the game from the Blackhawks were Joel Quenneville and his assistants, Jamie Kompon, Mike Kitchen and Stephane Waite. Mark Bernard, Al MacIssac and Keith Carney were at the game as well.
-The next game Dylan Olsen plays in will be his 100th in the AHL. Olsen was a healthy scratch Friday vs Milwaukee for the 5th time this season in the 18 games he’s been available this season. He had missed three games (Nov 27-Dec 1) with a leg injury but returned last Sunday in Charlotte, a game Ted Dent chose to dress an extra defenseman and designated Olsen as the 7th and extra man in the rotation. The 3rd year pro also missed two games in November due to suspension. Olsen played in 28 games last season with the Blackhawks, picking up one assist in his NHL appearances.
–Pete Leblanc was moved over from the wing to center the 4th line for this game. It’s the first time this season Leblanc has played a game at his natural position. The glut at center with the NHL on lockdown and Marcus Kruger in the fold forced the move originally. But the decision to change Jimmy Hayes’ position to center seemingly put even more distance between Leblanc and center ice. In Rockford last season on an AHL deal, the Blackhawks rewarded Leblanc with a two-way NHL deal on Friday April 13th, just prior to the end of the 2011-12 campaign. Leblanc led the IceHogs in goals scored last season from the center position. He mostly centered the Rostislav Olesz line, but not exclusively. In 19 games this season, Leblanc has 2 goals, 3 assists and has a team-low minus-8 plus/minus rating.
-Going 2-for-4 on the power play vs Milwaukee, the IceHogs have posted 2 goals with the man advantage in each of their last three home games (6 for 17 or 35.3%).
Overall, Rockford’s power play has converted 9 out of its last 26 chances (34.6%).