By Chris Block
Oftentimes when a good young player graduates a level there is at least a brief adjustment, or feeling out period.
And, in most cases, at some point, there are those moments or nights when you can almost witness that proverbial light bulb going off in the player’s head – when he, himself, becomes convinced his abilities do apply at that next level. On a shift, or a moment of pure instinct, his skills take over and he leaves behind the indecisiveness and over-thinking that naturally occurs when adapting to a new environment.
Prior to game two of the IceHogs 2013-14 season on Sunday in suburban Austin, Texas, Mark McNeill had appeared in 13 games in an IceHogs sweater and was without a point. Seven of those came at the end of his 18 year old junior season, and five more at the end of last season. In those late season cameos, McNeill barely showed even brief flashes of the attributes that made him the 18th overall selection in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.
Now 20, the Blackhawks prospect is embarking on his first season as a professional hockey player. After posting tall numbers on some bad Prince Albert Raiders teams the past two seasons, the 6-2, 215 pound right winger will attempt to realize the projections placed upon him at the age of 18.
Sunday night, before a crowd of 3,166 fans at the Cedar Park Center in Cedar Park, Texas – Mark McNeill stood out as a difference maker in Rockford’s 4-3 victory over the Texas Stars.
He was named the game’s first star, having posted an assist and scoring the game’s winning-goal. The points were his first and second as a pro.
Those heroics were not done alone, however. McNeill’s 2011 first-round draft-mate, Phillip Danault, shined as well in what was decidedly the best game thus far in both player’s young careers.
Rockford came into Sunday’s game reeling from a 2-1 loss the night before in which the team allowed a staggering 56 shots against in San Antonio.
The IceHogs also lost their assumed number one goalie when Antti Raanta left the game to a left leg injury just five minutes into Saturday’s season opener.
Kent Simpson relieved Raanta and was far and away Rockford’s best player in San Antonio.
Fast-forwarding to Cedar Park less than 24 hours later, Simpson would be called upon again with Raanta being sidelined and rookie Mac Carruth recalled from Toledo to backup Simpson.
Rockford’s 2012-13 season ended in Cedar Park, on a night the IceHogs had to win just keep the possibility of slipping into the playoffs alive. Henrik Karlsson started that night, only to allow three goals, two of which were very soft, and get pulled from the game one minute into the second period with the IceHogs trailing 3-0. Kent Simpson replaced Karlsson and the IceHogs rallied in front of him as Simpson stopped all 32 shots he faced the rest of the way in route to a 5-3 come from behind victory. Unfortunately for the Hogs, Milwaukee defeated Peoria the next afternoon, ending the IceHogs playoff dreams.
Coming into Sunday night’s contest, the biggest concern for the IceHogs was not how a young goaltender would respond after facing 51 shots the night before, but rather would the IceHogs skaters be able to limit their mental mistakes and unforced turnovers that led to that whopping shot total.
Simpson allowed a soft goal 6:32 into the contest to afford Texas an early 1-0 lead. Skating up his off wing, left-handed shooting Travis Morin (no relation to Jeremy) cruised through the right face-off circle and released a rising snap shot from the right face-off dot. Simpson caught a piece of Morin’s shot with his blocker but the puck bounced over the goaltender’s shoulder and into the twine behind Simpson. Colton Sceviour, son of the 1984 Blackhawks draft pick Darin Sceviour, was credited with the lone assist. (Darin Sceviour was a 5th round pick of the Hawks in 1984 and his lone career NHL game was in a Hawks uniform during the 1986-87 season. Darin currently works as a scout for the Lethbridge Hurricanes along with Rob Klinkhammer’s father, Gerry.)
Three minutes after taking the lead, Texas got their first power play of the contest when Taylor Peters was going to beat Adam Clendening in a race for the puck. Clendening, knowing losing the foot race would result in a breakaway for Peters, grabbed Peters’ stick and held on until eventually falling and taking Peters’ stick to the ice with him.
Texas would need 46 seconds to break through on their first chance on the man advantage. Brad Mills lost a defensive zone face off to Sceviour, and the Stars went to work inside Rockford’s zone. Just as in Saturday’s opener, the IceHogs had trouble covering the area to the left side of Kent Simpson’s crease. This time, it was Curtis McKenzie who parked himself down to Simpson’s left. A beautifully designed and executed Stars power play team found McKenzie all alone. McKenzie was given far too much time and space by the Rockford penalty killers. McKenzie accepted a pass on his forehand while facing the end boards. He then turned his body, brought the puck back to his forehand and slipped his shot underneath Simpson’s right pad to give Texas a 2-0 lead midway into the first period.
But the IceHogs would answer a minute and fourteen seconds later, but only after two pretty fortunate incidents deep in their own end.
Adam Clendening was skating back, deep, into his own end when he lost an edge crashed awkwardly into the boards near the Rockford goal line. Fortunately for Clendening, and the IceHogs, the Stars were in the midst of a full line change and no Texas skaters were in the vicinity of the fallen IceHogs defenseman. Clendening thus had time to pick himself up, gather the puck and disgustedly fire the puck across and down around the net to Klas Dahlbeck.
Dahlbeck worked the puck back to Clendening, who proceeded to telegraph a pass to a teammate in the neutral zone. Stars forward Matej Stransky read the pass and knocked it down with his glove just inside the IceHogs’ blue line. Fortunately for Rockford, however, when Stransky gloved the puck down to the ice it took an IceHogs bounce and re-directed into the neutral zone and onto Byron Froese’s stick.
Froese gained speed cutting up the right side and fired a pass across the top of the Stars’ zone to Jeremy Morin. Morin reached back for the pass, settled the puck and unleashed a 45 foot wrist shot from his off wing to the far side that beat Cristopher Nilstorp’s blocker clean. Clendening picked up the second assist on the scoring play. The goal was Morin’s first of the season.
Eleven seconds after Morin’s tally, Brad Winchester took a cross-checking penalty to put the IceHogs back on the man disadvantage but this time the Rockford penalty killers were up to the task.
Moments after the Texas power play elapsed, Stars winger Francis Wathier hit Byron Froese hard into the glass from behind inside the Hogs’ zone. Froese, trying to clear his zone, bounced a puck off the glass above the half wall. As he did, Froese turned his back so he was facing the glass. Wathier, in pursuit, didn’t pull up and drilled Froese between the numbers.
Rockford’s primary power play unit needed only 49 seconds to cash in on its first opportunity of the contest. Emulating the approach the Stars used to break through on its first power play, the IceHogs skaters broke down Texas’ conventional box by spacing three players across the middle of the zone. With Brad Winchester parked in front of Cristopher Nilstorp, Adam Clendening flicked a wrister down from the top of the point through some traffic and past the screened goalie to tie the game at 2-2.
Late in the first, Jeremy Morin dropped the gloves with Brock Montgomery. The IceHogs winger was trying to finish his check on Montgomery near the wall in front of the penalty boxes but Montgomery turned slightly at the last second and Morin stuck his forearm out and caught Montgomery in the head. The Stars right wing immediately challenged Morin, who first turned and swung the top end of his stick at Montgomery, before dropping his gloves. They each grabbed one another’s collars with their left hands and spun around and around, but no significant strikes were landed during the bout.
The IceHogs best chance to take the lead in the final minutes of the third came on another fine Byron Froese rush. Froese executed a drop pass to Mark McNeill, who snapped a low wrist shot from the right circle than was stopped by Nilstorp.
Clendening’s sluggish 2013-14 start continued early in the second when he committed yet another unforced turnover. From behind his own net, Clendening threw a pass out to his blue line that was read and picked off by the Stars Toby Peterson, but luckily for the Hogs, the Stars were immediately called off sides.
Alex Broadhurst was awarded Rockford’s first penalty shot of the year at 9:44 of the second after he was hooked down to the ice by Peterson. Broadhurst caught a burst of speed down the middle of the ice and with three Stars’ skaters chasing him, Peterson took the IceHogs’ rookie forward down. Broadhurst used the slow, methodical approach in his penalty shot. As he strode in on Nilstorp, Broadhurst deked twice but then lost the handle and was poke checked before he could get a shot away.
On the next shift, the IceHogs captured the lead on a goal from an unlikely source.
This shift was a shining moment for the “kid” line of Phillip Danault, Garret Ross and Mark McNeill.
McNeill set the tone by stealing a puck in the Stars zone and driving straight to Nilstorp’s net. The chance was unsuccessful but Danault’s line kept the pressure on the Stars. McNeill got the puck to Danault, who tried to set McNeill up for a one-timer and the right circle. But with two Stars converging onto him, McNeill fanned on the attempt. The puck then trickled back to the point where Klas Dahlbeck released a blast that may have been tipped by Stars forward Brett Ritchie. Nilstorp was unable to make the stop and Dahlbeck notched his first goal of the year and second as an IceHog.
Thirty seconds later, Froese was again a target of the Stars when Curtis McKenzie threw a wild right elbow to the head of the third-year pro after Froese had released a pass. Jared Nightingale, who needed stitches to repair a cut from the Bobby Butler shot he took to the chin in Saturday night’s game, jumped to Froese’s defense and dropped the gloves with McKenzie.
Moments after the fight, Texas tied the score when former IceHogs forward Mike Hedden somehow out-battled both Clendening and Dahlbeck at Kent Simpson’s crease, then got help from Brett Ritchie before finally punching the puck past a sprawled out Simpson. The goal was Hedden’s first of the season. Jeremy Morin came from left circle and reached for the puck as Ritchie and Hedden whacked away but Morin took one stab at it and did a fly-by as the Stars evened the score at 3-3 with 8:38 to go in the middle frame.
The story of the weekend was Kent Simpson, whose fabulous play in net was again highlighted when he made another huge stop on Matej Stransky late in the second period after Theo Peckham left his point position to deliver a big hit at the IceHogs’ blue line.
Rockford regained the lead with 1:36 left in the second when the Danault line went to work on the Stars.
Phillip Danault had a beast of a shift leading to the eventual goal. First, he hustled on the backcheck to steal a puck and send Ross and McNeill back towards the Stars zone on a 2-on-1, but that opportunity was broken down by the Texas defense.
Seconds later, Danault created yet another turnover when he ripped the puck away from Mike Hedden inside the Stars’ blue line. Danault immediately sent a backhand feed up the near right wall to McNeill who turned and drove straight to the Stars’ goal on his forehand. McNeill roofed his shot over Nilstorp’s stick and blocker to give the IceHogs a 4-3 lead.
With seven seconds left in the period, Texas set Brett Ritchie up for a one-timer attempt but Simpson was able to close the five hole and secure the 4-3 lead into the second intermission.
Known for their great third period performances a season ago, Rockford kept the pressure on Texas in the final frame.
Brad Winchester came within an inch of notching his first as an IceHogs when hit clanged one off the left pipe at 8:30 of the third.
Klas Dahlbeck exhibited newfound offensive instincts a minute later during a McNeill and Ross led two-on-one. McNeill’s pass to Ross was chipped away but Dahlbeck pinched down into the slot to maintain zone possession. This resulted in Garret Ross getting a second opportunity – this time on the doorstep, but Nilstorp was able to shut the door.
Texas got a power play late when Brad Mills was sent to the box for holding. The Rockford penalty kill was again able to stave off a good Stars’ power play. Texas pulled Nilstorp to give their team a 6 on 4 skater advantage, then 6 on 5 when Mills returned.
There were some tense moments and two dramatic goalmouth scrambles in front of Simpson with Dylan Olsen, Jared Nightingale and McNeill preventing the damage. Mills, upon his return, and Brad Winchester also came up with a couple big blocked shots each to prevent the Stars from tying the game and securing the 4-3 victory.
Kent Simpson stopped 41 shots in the win. All total in the two nights, Simpson stopped 90 shots in just over 24 hours.
The win was also Simpson’s second as a pro, the other also coming in Texas at Cedar Park Center on the final night of the 2012-13 season.
Of Simpson’s five AHL appearances, he’s faced the Stars three times now. He’s 2-1 in those games with a 92.8% save percentage (110 shots against).
The IceHogs fly back to Chicago on Monday, then bus home to Rockford.
Rockford returns to the ice next weekend for a pair of games, Friday and Saturday, in Cleveland against the Lake Erie Monsters (affiliate of the Colorado Avalanche).
IceHogs will then visit Allstate Arena in Rosemont on the 18th before hosting their home opener in Rockford at the newly renovated BMO Harris Bank Center on October 19th.
–IceHogs lines, pairings & scratches Sunday in Cedar Park, TX
11-Brad Winchester / 14-Drew Leblanc / 19-Jeremy Morin
25-Alex Broadhurst / 27-Brandon Pirri / 16-Brad Mills
26-Garret Ross / 18-Phillip Danault / 28-Mark McNeill
20-Pat Mullane / 24-Byron Froese / 37-Terry Broadhurst
3-Dylan Olsen / 6-Jared Nightingale
10-Klas Dahlbeck / 2-Adam Clendening
8-Viktor Svedberg / 22-Theo Peckham
33-Kent Simpson (starter)
Scratches: LW-15-Wade Brookbank… RW-36-Maxim Shalunov… D-5-Joe Gleason… G-35-Antti Raanta….
(I’ll presume the IceHogs equipment staff didn’t bring an extra goalie-sized jersey on the trip, since Carruth was assigned number 31 in training camp.)
Power play I: Winchester-Mills-Morin w/ Pirri & Clendening
Power play II: *Ross-Danault-McNeill w/Olsen & Svedberg
PK forwards: Danault-Froese, Mills-McNeill, Ross-Morin, Winchester, Mullane (various mixes of those listed as well)
PK defense: Olsen-Nightingale, Svedberg-Peckham, Dahlbeck-Clendening
*Rockford had just two power plays in the game and the PP1 unit scored on the first shift of IceHogs’ initial power play in the first period. Their second power play didn’t come until halfway into the third period. Thus, the Danault line being responsible for the 3-2 and eventual game-winning 4-3 goals probably influenced the decision to go with the kid line here. The first unit was the same as it was on Saturday.
**Lineup notes: Theo Peckham made his IceHogs debut. Having sat out Saturday’s opener in San Antonio, Peckham was inserted into Sunday’s lineup in place of Joe Gleason. Gleason struggled in his professional debut, but this lineup change was likely pre-planned by the coaching staff….. With Peckham in, the defense pairings flipped a bit. Olsen, who was paired with Gleason on Saturday, was put with Jared Nightingale. Peckham played the right side with Viktor Svedberg.
The forward lines did switch around somewhat during Sunday’s contest, though they always reverted back to those listed above. Drew Leblanc missed some shifts in the second period and, as noted on the broadcast, was seen leaving for the locker room with a member of the training staff during the third period. He would return though and finished the game.
In Leblanc’s absences, Froese got some added ice time. The Broadhurst brothers also skated a few shifts as linemates with Pirri, Leblanc and Froese between them at separate points. If Alex and Terry skated a shift together in Saturday’s season opener I don’t recall it.
–IceHogs are officially listing goalie Antti Raanta as being “day-to-day” with a “lower-body” injury. Raanta suffered an apparent left leg injury in the opening minutes of Saturday’s game at San Antonio and had to leave the game at the five minute mark.
While day-to-day sounds minor enough, and it very well may be, it should be noted that the team also used the “day-to-day” line when describing Alexander Salak’s timetable in December of 2011 and Salak wound up not playing for two months. Raanta’s injury is believed to be different than that particular Salak ailment. But the point being, day-to-day, to where the Blackhawks organization is concerned, is intentionally vague enough to the point it has lost its originally intended meaning.
–Kent Simpson reminds me a bit of a young Craig Anderson. Every time I’ve seen him he just gets peppered with shot activity. Yet, he never seems to tire and he’s never out of the battle. When Raanta gets healthy, he’d better be all that his 2012-13 Finnish stats stack him up to be, because Simpson is a contender to that number one job based on what we’ve seen so far.
–Brandon Pirri’s straight line speed has noticeably improved.
–Rockford won 13 of 23 faceoffs in the first period. I tried to track the faceoffs individually in the second and third but it was impossible as I was watching the in-arena scoreboard feed and that sometimes cuts back to the action after the faceoff. That being said, of what I was able to track, Pirri won about 3 out of every 4 draws from that point on.
–This is hardly a new thing, but when he’s one-on-one, Jeremy Morin too often skates directly toward, and tries to dangle around the defenseman. The majority of time he does so this winds up in a change of possession.
Over his last 20 AHL games, Morin has 14 goals and 10 helpers. He’s also averaging 4.6 shots per game over that same stretch.
–Last season it took Klas Dahlbeck 68 games to notch his first goal. This year he scores in the IceHogs 2nd game. The 6-foot-4 Swedish defenseman now has 4 goals in 180 professional regular season games played, including his time with Linkoping in the Swedish Elite League (now known as simply the Swedish Hockey League).