By Chris Block
Riding a four game losing streak (0-3-1-0), the Rockford IceHogs drive 93 miles northeast tonight where they’ll visit the BMO Harris Bradley Center to face off with the Milwaukee Admirals for the second time in six days.
The lone point Rockford has picked up in those four contests came in a 4-3 overtime loss in Milwaukee this past Friday. Rockford trailed the Admirals 3-1 midway through that game until goals by Brandon Pirri and captain Martin St. Pierre forced an overtime session. However, a breakdown in the IceHogs end resulted in Kevin Henderson surprising Carter Hutton with the game-winning shot a minute and forty-five seconds in to send the IceHogs back to Rockford with only the one consolation standings point.
Although the IceHogs (13-12-1-1) have lost both of their games since dropping first-place to the Griffins in Grand Rapids on December 9th, that one point earned in Milwaukee has been enough force Rockford back into a tie with Grand Rapids for the top spot in the Midwest Division. The Griffins has also lost their past two games since moving into first in the division. Grand Rapids hosts the Rochester Americans tonight at Van Andel Arena.
The Midwest division race is as tight as it could possibly be, now a third of the way through the 76 game American Hockey League season. One point separates last-place Milwaukee (12-11-2-1, 27 points) from Grand Rapids and Rockford in the top spot.
After tonight’s game, Rockford is off until Friday when they’re back at the BMO Harris Bradley Center for the third time in eight days. Against the Admirals this season, Rockford has a 1-1-1-0 record.
TED DENT SAYS SOME OF HIS NHLers RECENTLY HAVE BEEN “PASSENGERS”
Any four-game losing stretch will raise questions. For the IceHogs, it’s their second now in just 27 games. The first came in the first four games (0-3-0-1) of the 2012-13 campaign. But sandwiched in the middle of this first 1/3 of the season was a stretch that saw Rockford drop six of eight contests.
So what gives? What has driven this team, made up of talented and rising young NHL prospects, to be so up and down?
Neutral zone turnovers and breakdowns in defensive zone coverage have been the catalysts for many of the IceHogs losses this season. Their inconsistency overall, however, has been guided by some players, who quite frankly, have yet to perform to their full potential in Rockford.
IceHogs bench boss Ted Dent offered his take last weekend when asked what areas of concern he had in his team at a 1/3 of the way through the season.
But first, he praised the leadership group for their terrific starts.
“I’m happy with our leaders, the way they’re playing – the guys wearing letters. They’re definitely playing well.”
Those guys wearing letters are team captain Martin St. Pierre, along with alternates Ben Smith and Ryan Stanton.
“Saintsy is leading the way,” Dent said. “He’s been our best player by far.”
St. Pierre leads the IceHogs in goals (12), assists (13) and overall points scored (25) after 27 games. Ben Smith comes in behind St. Pierre in goals scored with 11. Stanton anchors the IceHogs shut-down defense-pair with first-year North American player Klas Dahlbeck and they are on the first-team penalty-kill unit as well.
“Everyone’s on board with what we’re doing,” Dent says. “We have a good group of guys.”
Dent, though, was quick to add that not everyone has been firing on all cylinders thus far.
“I think we have some guys that got to pick up their game, for sure,” said Dent after a 6-4 loss at home to Hamilton on Dec 15.
“Especially some of the guys that are the ones that are supposed to be playing in Chicago if the NHL starts. They’re going through the motions some nights and that’s not working out too well.”
When asked if the coaching staff has had to work to keep those players energy levels elevated and focused more so than other players who wouldn’t figure to be in Chicago were the NHL active, Dent explained he treats everyone the same.
“We have a high standard for whoever’s here, whether they have played in the NHL, or not. I think it’s a mental thing for those guys. They got to mentally understand that they are here. They can’t play not to get hurt. They have to play hard every night. And they have to earn their ice time here. And through the last four or five games there has been a couple of them that have been passengers.”
Dent did not name names but since he did single out his captains for their strong play, its not a challenge to figure out those would-be NHLers Dent is pointing towards.
Brandon Saad has just 4 shots on goal in his past 5 games. That’s unacceptable for a sniper with his power and breakaway stride coming off the wing. Saad picked up two assists in Saturday night’s loss. But that also ended a stretch of 5 games without a point for the big twenty-year old who tore the Ontario Hockey League apart last season as a member of the Saginaw Spirit. Whenever the NHL does start back up, Saad has been expected to push for a spot on one of the Blackhawks top two scoring lines.
Marcus Kruger’s season has been decent, but underwhelming if you consider he has the most NHL experience of any of the IceHogs forwards. His 12 assists tie him with Brandon Pirri for 2nd on the IceHogs in that category. But 11 of Kruger’s 18 points have come via the power play, ice time he isn’t likely to see much of on a healthy NHL club, and his even strength play has been just average. Kruger is a minus-3 on the season.
Jimmy Hayes is without a point in his last six games, something which hasn’t happened to him in the AHL since his pro career began in the spring of 2011. Hayes didn’t get his first pro point until his 8th game, which came on opening night of the 2011-12 season.
Nick Leddy slept walked through portions of the first month and a half of the season. A concussion sustained on October 25th that cause Leddy to miss the next four games didn’t help matters as some nights you could tell Leddy was playing not to get hurt. Leddy isn’t alone in that category. He has been a lot better of late though, but still has his mental lapses. He’s not the player some people want him to be and the coaching staff has recently put Leddy under constraints and its helped refocus the third-year pro. Leddy needs to be more aware and responsible while paired with Clendening.
Dylan Olsen has been an enigma. The third-year (in his second full season now) blue liner has had trouble getting on the ice even when he’s in the lineup. The past two games Olsen has been dressed as the seventh defenseman and overall he’s been scratched 6 times in the 22 games he’s been available. Olsen has also missed three games due to a leg injury and two because of suspension.
Listen to Ted Dent discuss Nick Leddy and the areas of the 21-year old defenseman’s game Dent and his coaching staff have modified over the past six weeks.
Dent says “passengers” can’t play not to get hurt
BLACKHAWKS BRASS DICTATES MORE LINEUP CHANGES
“That’s just different positions from Chicago,” said Ted Dent when asked about sudden lineup changes over the weekend.
Over the course of the season, Dent had to shift line combinations and defense pairings based on recommendations, or instructions, he’s received in conversations with upper management and the Chicago Blackhawks coaching staff.
From the start of the season Nick Leddy has been shifted off the right defense position, a spot he played nearly all of last season, to the left defenseman spot. Now since Leddy played the left side in high school and college that isn’t a tremendous change, but his chosen defense partner, Ryan Stanton, was thus forced over to the right side – a position he has not played in his first two years as a pro.
Leddy and Stanton were split up by Dent after a horrible start to a game against Peoria on Nov 21. Trying to shake things up with the six defenseman he had dressed that night, Dent paired Leddy with Adam Clendening to start the second period. Stanton stayed on the right side but came out with third-year pro and first-year North American Klas Dahlbeck. Rockford came back to win that game and both pairs have stuck together ever since. The only change being last weekend, Stanton and Dahlbeck switched sides.
A month into the season, a decision came down from Chicago Blackhawks hockey operations that it wanted to try Jimmy Hayes at center. So, with a lineup already jam-packed with centers including Martin St. Pierre, Brandon Pirri, Marcus Kruger, Rob Flick and last season’s IceHogs leading-goal scorer Pete Leblanc – the Blackhawks informed Ted Dent that he was now to play Hayes at center ice, a position Hayes hadn’t played since youth hockey.
Blackhawks Director of Player Development Barry Smith was quickly dispatched to Rockford to help teach Hayes the ins-and-outs of the center position, while IceHogs assistant coach Ben Simon, a center man during his 11-year professional career, stood by and watched.
The Jimmy Hayes to-center experiment lasted 17 games. Predictably, it was a rough adjustment and the team struggled. The IceHogs lost four of their first five games with Hayes moved to center. Hayes did settle in at the pivot, showed some promise, but never got the hang of face-offs to the point Dent wouldn’t allow him to take many and eventually Hayes’ offense went silent.
Last weekend, Dent got a new directive from Blackhawks brass – Move Andrew Shaw from wing to the center position.
When asked about the move, Dent said it wasn’t his decision.
“That was discussed to me that they wanted him at center, and give it a go,” Dent said. “So, that’s what that is.”
With another winger sliding over to center, that signaled the end of the Jimmy Hayes center trial. At least for now, that is.
“We have too many centers,” Dent explained. “So, if they want Shaw to come in the middle, then we had to move someone (being Hayes) over.”
Other news & notes
-Carter Hutton turns 27 today, December 19th
-IceHogs return home on Saturday night to face the Abbotsford Heat, minor league affiliate of the Calgary Flames. It’s also “Stan Mikita Night” at the BMO Harris Bank Center in Rockford. The first 1,500 fans through the door will receive mini-Stan Mikita hockey sticks.
-After Saturday, the IceHogs will be off until Thursday December 27th when they’ll host the Chicago Wolves. Rockford will host Milwaukee on Saturday December 29th and then close out the 2012 calendar in Grand Rapids on New Years Eve.
IceHogs current individual AHL games without a goal: Brett Lebda (38), Joe Lavin (36), Ryan Stanton (30), Klas Dahlbeck (21*), Philippe Paradis (20), Brandon Bollig (17), Wade Brookbank (16), Dylan Olsen (16), Shawn Lalonde (12), Pete Leblanc (9), Jimmy Hayes (8), Brandon Saad (6), Adam Clendening (5), Jeremy Morin (5), Rob Flick (4), Kyle Beach (3), Andrew Shaw (2), Nick Leddy (1), Brandon Pirri (1), Marcus Kruger (-), Ben Smith (-), Martin St. Pierre (-)….
IceHogs current individual AHL games without an assist: Klas Dahlbeck (21**), Rob Flick (16), Wade Brookbank (13), Jimmy Hayes (6), Philippe Paradis (4), Andrew Shaw (4), Shawn Lalonde (3), Brandon Pirri (3), Dylan Olsen (2), Kyle Beach (1), Brandon Bollig (1), Marcus Kruger (1), Brett Lebda (1), Pete Leblanc (1), Ben Smith (1), Adam Clendening (-), Joe Lavin (-), Nick Leddy (-), Jeremy Morin (-), Brandon Saad (-), Ryan Stanton (-), Martin St. Pierre (-)….
*Denotes without career AHL goal
**Denotes without career AHL assist