By Chris Block
Looking to return to their recent winning ways and stay within striking distance of first-place Grand Rapids ahead of two all-important matchups next week at the BMO with those same Griffins, the Rockford IceHogs (17-14-1-1) traveled to Hamilton, Ontario on Friday night to face a down-and-out Hamilton Bulldogs squad.
Hamilton came into Friday’s contest against Rockford with the worst record (11-18-1-2) in the AHL. Hamilton, the AHL affiliate to the Montreal Canadiens, had lost 8 of their past 9 contests since defeating Rockford 6-4 at the BMO Harris Bank Center on December 15th.
Worse yet, Hamilton had not scored a goal in more than three games before facing the IceHogs for the second and final time this season. The Bulldogs had been shutout in each of their previous three games, all road losses.
For these reasons, and perhaps a little too much confidence in the way they’ve played of late, the IceHogs may have taken the Bulldogs for granted on Friday night.
Despite the IceHogs getting out to a quick start, sloppy passing and poor work in the defensive zone contributed to a 3-1 Rockford loss before a crowd of 4,505 at Copps Coliseum on Friday.
Backup Alec Richards got the start in net, his first in nine games. Richards was strong in relief of Carter Hutton back on December 15th in the 6-4 loss to Hamilton, stopping all 13 shots he saw in 30 minutes of action. Hutton had been pulled after allowing 5 goals on 20 shots. The Bulldogs added an empty-net tally with 13 seconds left to seal that victory.
On Friday night, Ben Smith got the IceHogs on the board 1:53 into the game when he pounced on a Robert Mayer rebound in front of the net and put it home to give Rockford a quick 1-0 lead. Mayer had stopped at Shawn Lalonde shot but left it out for Smith. Brandon Pirri picked up the other assist. Lalonde, playing in his first game since Hamilton and Rockford last met on December 15th at the BMO, picked up his first point since December 7th. Lalonde was a healthy scratch for 6 consecutive games before Friday’s game, and in 7 of the past 9.
Alec Richards was terrific throughout the opening period in the face of his teammates careless puck possession and defensive zone turnovers. Richards turned in his biggest save of the period making up for a terrible Nick Leddy giveaway to Bulldogs forward Michael Bournival as Leddy skated up the middle of the slot in his own end. Richards got just enough of Bournival’s breakaway chance to maintain the IceHogs 1-0 lead.
Later in the frame, Philippe Paradis caught two Bulldogs defenseman flat-footed while cruising down Hamilton’s slot. Paradis slipped by both and then was hooked by Mike Commodore as he got his shot away on Robert Mayer. Despite Paradis’ efforts to draw the IceHogs first full power play, Rockford was unable to build on their 1-0 lead.
The opening twenty minutes finished with the IceHogs caught mid-line change and pinned down in their own zone by Hamilton for a solid thirty seconds. A mix of tired and fresh IceHogs’ legs were unable to clear the zone or win a board battle.
With the final seconds ticking off the clock, Michael Blunden beat two IceHogs to a puck along the half wall and punched it up the wall to Gabriel Dumont inside the blue line. Dumont fired a slap shot that was tipped by Patrick Holland on its way to Alec Richards. The puck appeared to cross the line just as time expired, prompting referee T.J. Luxmore to call for a video review.
However, once Luxmore got to the official scorer’s box where the video review monitor is located, he and off-ice officials realized that the video review equipment had not been plugged in. So the play could not be reviewed and Luxmore’s original determination of a Bulldogs’ goal would stand. The IceHogs were upset but not as much as they would be during the intermission when a review of the video showed the puck did not cross the line before time had expired. Nonetheless, the goal stood and the score was tied 1-1 coming out of the first intermission.
That goal also ended a stretch of 200:29 in which Hamilton did not register a single goal.
The second period was evenly played, both in terms of chances and more sloppiness from both sides.
Ryan Stanton pulled down ex-teammate Kyle Hagel at the IceHogs goalline and away from the play at 5:38 of the period but Rockford’s penalty kill was up to the task. Olivier Fortier was assessed a penalty for illegal equipment at 13:32 but the IceHogs power play units were unable to capitalize themselves.
But it was a case of one-too many penalties that did Rockford in. Jimmy Hayes went to the box for tripping forty-two seconds after Hamilton killed off the Fortier minor. Hamilton seized this opportunity when Gabriel Dumont tipped a hard Frederic St-Denis slap shot past Richards with 2:49 to go in the middle frame to give Hamilton a 2-1 lead.
Hamilton’s power play was 1 for 5 on the night. The IceHogs officially went 0 for 3, however one of those power plays lasted all of five seconds.
At 5:51 of the third period, Olivier Fortier, in his 11th game since joining Hamilton from ECHL’s Orlando Solar Bears, scored his first goal as a member of the Bulldogs when he pounced on a puck at the backdoor and easily beat Alec Richards into the open side to widen Hamilton’s lead to 3-1. Richards had stopped Philippe Lefebvre’s shot but kicked it right to Fortier out front of the left post. Fortier’s tally came just 10 seconds after the IceHogs had killed off another penalty, a hooking infraction by Adam Clendening.
The IceHogs pressed Hamilton down the stretch, pulling Richards in the final two minutes of the game for the extra attacker to get at least within a goal, but to no avail, the game ended in a 3-1 Hamilton victory.
Rockford outshot the Bulldogs 8-6 in the final frame but couldn’t beat Robert Mayer. In all, Mayer stopped 35 of 36 IceHogs shots on Friday in route to his 7th win. Alec Richards drops to 4-4 on the season with a 3.12 goals against average and 88.7% save percentage.
With this loss, Rockford has still yet to defeat the Hamilton Bulldogs inside regulation since joining the AHL in 2007. Rockford is 2-8-0-0 overall versus Hamilton, with one win coming in overtime and the other via the shootout.
In coming back from the early 1-0 deficit to win, Hamilton improved its record when allowing the first goal to 6-17-1-1.
The IceHogs dip to a game below the .500 mark on the road, 7-8-1-1.
Grand Rapids was a winner on Friday night too, defeating the Oklahoma City Barons 5-2 at Van Andel Arena in northwest Michigan to increase their lead over Rockford to four points. And the Griffins still have three games in hand on the IceHogs as well.
Now that we’re into January, its never to early to look at games on the schedule and call to their importance.
Rockford is in the midst of a pivotal swing here that they could ultimately look back upon and say put them out of the hunt for the top spot in the Midwest division and for one of automatic top three seeds in the conference if they can’t string some wins together – Making Saturday’s game in Toronto a crucial turnaround game for Rockford. They’ll need to put this two-game losing streak behind them and try to gain ground Wednesday and Friday when hosting Grand Rapids in back-to-back games at the BMO. Lose another two of three upcoming, and they fall far enough back that they’ll be in chase mode (win and check the scoreboard) for the remainder of the schedule.
Rockford is in Toronto on Saturday for an afternoon matchup with the Marlies. Puck drop is 3pm eastern/2pm central.
–Rockford IceHogs lines, pairings & scratches in Hamilton
39-Martin St. Pierre / 16-Marcus Kruger / 19-Jeremy Morin
20-Brandon Saad / 27-Brandon Pirri / 21-Ben Smith
18-Brandon Bollig / 23-Andrew Shaw / 12-Kyle Beach
11-Philippe Paradis / 26-Rob Flick / 17-Jimmy Hayes
8-Nick Leddy / 2-Adam Clendening
4-Ryan Stanton / 10-Klas Dahlbeck
3-Dylan Olsen / 9-Shawn Lalonde
35-Alec Richards (starter)
30-Carter Hutton (backup)
Scratches: D-6-Joe Lavin… LW-15-Wade Brookbank… D-22-Brett Lebda… LW/C-32-Pete Leblanc….
Injuries: D-Joe Lavin (right wrist surgery)
Power play I: Saad-Pirri-Smith w/ Leddy & Clendening
Power play II: St.Pierre-Kruger-Morin w/ Olsen & Lalonde
PK forwards: (many diff combos) Smith, Saad, Kruger, Bollig, Shaw, Morin
PK defense: Stanton-Dahlbeck, Leddy-Olsen
-Hamilton’s first goal, officially coming at 19:59 of the first period, as time expired on the game clock in the opening period should not have counted, according to various reports coming from officials at Copps Coliseum. Even the Bulldogs own broadcasters acknowledged that the goal should not have counted.
The goal was going to be reviewed by referee T.J. Luxmore. However, when Luxmore got to the official scorer’s booth he and the off ice officials at Copps Coliseum realized that the video replay equipment had not been plugged in. Thus, the goal, which the IceHogs were disputing vociferously, could not be reviewed.
Later during the intermission, those who viewed the replay indicated that the goal should not have counted, as the puck did not cross the line before the final tenth of a second ticked off the game clock.
Rockford was understandably upset as they should have gone into the first intermission up 1-0, but instead saw Hamilton get a lift off an unsubstantiated score to tie the game at 1-1.
Also, according to the Bulldogs’ broadcast, both teams were then informed that because the video equipment was not working properly on that play, according to AHL rules, video review could also no longer be used during this game.
-Jeremy Morin returned to the lineup against Hamilton after missing four games with an abdominal strain suffered on December 21st at Milwaukee.
-Hometown-boy Pete Leblanc (a healthy scratch for this game) wasn’t the only Hamilton-bred Rockford IceHog returning home on Friday. Blackhawks assistant GM and IceHogs general manager Mark Bernard is from Hamilton. Adam Clendening (from the Buffalo/Niagra Falls area) had family and friends up for Friday’s game.
The Hamilton-Toronto swing is always a big weekend for IceHogs players. Ted Dent and Brandon Pirri are both Toronto boys. Rob Flick is from London (80 miles west of Hamilton) but played his junior hockey in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga. Andrew Shaw is from Belleville (120 miles east of Toronto). Shawn Lalonde and Martin St. Pierre are both originally from the Ottawa region. That’s a four hour drive from Toronto, though. Jeremy Morin grew up outside Syracuse, New York but played one season of junior hockey in Kitchener, Ontario – an hour and ten minutes west of Toronto and less than an hour to Copps Coliseum.
-Copps Coliseum in Hamilton and Ricoh Coliseum (site of Saturday’s game) in Toronto are separated by a 45 minute drive. Ricoh Coliseum seats a little under 8,000 for hockey and is two miles down the Gardiner Expressway from Air Canada Centre.
-IceHogs’ captain and leading-scorer (14g 16a) Martin St. Pierre is currently one point shy of 500 in his regular season AHL career. In 474 career games, St. Pierre has collected 499 points playing for the former Edmonton Road Runners (2004-05), Norfolk Admirals (2005-07, as a member of the Blackhawks organization), Providence Bruins (08-09), Binghamton Senators (09-10), Springfield Falcons (11-12) and in two tours of duty now with the IceHogs (07-08, 12-13).
-Kyle Beach played in his 125th career regular season AHL game vs Hamilton on Friday. Beach has 29 goals, 30 assists (59pts) in that span.
-Brandon Bollig & Hamilton’s Zack Stortini dropped the gloves and fought as the two sides were lined up at center ice to drop the puck to start the second period.
Now, it didn’t appear the referee ever dropped the puck to start play. If that’s the case, then both Bollig & Stortini should have been assessed game misconducts to go along with the matching fighting majors pursuant to AHL rule 46.8 which indicates such. However, referee T.J. Luxmore evidently felt there was a puck drop because he officially called the penalties at 0:01 of the second period. That’s interesting, because the clock at Copps Coliseum never started running to signal the start of the period. So, either Luxmore doesn’t know the rule, or he didn’t have the balls to kick Bollig & Stortini out of the game at that point. Who gives a fuck about the rules anyway?
-Hamilton native Pete Leblanc was a healthy scratch for this game. Word was Leblanc was privately very unhappy after learning he was being scratched. Leblanc had dressed in Rockford’s previous three games and was held off the scoresheet in each of those. Before that, Leblanc had missed four of five games, though two of those scratches were due to Leblanc being given time to recover from aches and pains incurred when he was involved in a car accident in Rockford on Friday December 21st. Leblanc was driving home from the IceHogs morning skate (they played in Milwaukee that night and the team didn’t bus up there until mid-afternoon) when his car was struck, t-boned by another vehicle.
Leblanc was also healthy scratched when Hamilton visited Rockford on Dec 15. Leblanc was the IceHogs leading goal scorer (24) last season. Most of his success a season ago came centering a line with Rostislav Olesz on his wing. Due to the glut of centers (or experimenting centers) in Rockford this season, Leblanc has been forced over to left wing and has struggled to get his game going. Leblanc is not foreign to left wing, as he has played it in the past both at New Hampshire and in Rockford. In 25 games this season, Leblanc has just 2 goals and 5 assists.
It’s really difficult to say these days to what degree the decision to sit out Leblanc can be attributed to IceHogs head coach Ted Dent. With Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman, Scotty Bowman, Barry Smith, Joel Quenneville and others consistently leaning over his shoulder providing input and direction, it may not have entirely been Dent’s call.
Dent scratched Jimmy Hayes for one game a couple weeks ago but that call hasn’t seemed to spark Hayes much at all, and he’s been in the lineup ever since. Hayes has 0 goals and 2 assists in his last 14 games. He’s not much of a physical presence and he largely been a non-factor since late November. And yet, there Hayes is Friday night occupying space on the fourth line with Flick and Paradis.
You can’t fault Dent for dressing Flick and Paradis over Leblanc. If he has to put Hayes on that line, he needs the physical element and energy Flick and more specifically Paradis provide.
Ultimately Leblanc, himself, is to blame for not finding a way to make a bigger contribution to the IceHogs this season. You make your own breaks for the most part, and Leblanc hasn’t done much with the ice time he has been given to this point in the season.
But I’m sure it can be frustrating to see Shawn Lalonde, who drew back into the lineup Friday after two weeks worth of healthy scratches, out there in place of Brett Lebda, who I’m not sure deserved to be sat out on Friday either.
Leblanc probably felt somewhat humiliated to be back in his hometown, with many of his family and friends in attendance to see him, only to be dressed up in suit and tie watching instead of competing.