By Chris Block
Tonight, Rockford plays its first playoff contest since 2010 when they begin their best-of-5 opening round series with the Texas Stars in suburban Austin.
Rockford has lost the past 10 consecutive playoff games they have played. The American Hockey League record of most consecutive losses in postseason is 12, set by the Buffalo Bisons in the 1950s. The IceHogs last playoff win came in Game 5 of their second round series with the Chicago Wolves in 2008, the IceHogs first season in the AHL. Rockford was up 3-2 in that series then lost games 6 & 7. The Wolves would go on to with the Calder Cup that year.
While the IceHogs dominated the season series with Texas, this was about the worst draw Rockford could have asked for. The key to Rockford’s success against Texas during the regular season was catching the Stars at the right times, and a power play that ran at a 37.5% clip against the Stars this season.
Rockford can skate with any team in the West at 5-on-5. Where they have separated themselves for success is in getting elite goaltending from Michael Leighton, Scott Darling and Antti Raanta. Mac Carruth, who was in net for three games this season and went 2-1 with a shutout (at Chicago) is now the backup.
But aside from the goaltending, which, no mistake, is why the IceHogs are in the postseason, Rockford’s special teams were consistently the difference between a win and a loss in 2014-15.
Noting that, no team boasts better special teams than Texas.
Their combined special teams mark is 106.9 (86.9 PP + 20.0 PK). Texas ranks 3rd overall in the AHL, and tops in the Western Conference on the power play. Their penalty kill is 4th in the AHL and 2nd in the West.
Rockford’s combined special teams is 103.0 (86.0 PP + 17.0 PK). The IceHogs rank 15th in the AHL on the power play and 8th on the PK.
Michael Leighton was deservedly honored as IceHogs’ team MVP, but his game has tailed off a bit the last month of the season. So, I wouldn’t take Rockford’s goaltending for granted heading into the postseason. In the last month, Leighton’s save percentage is .905 and goals against is 2.63. He’s been getting 3.84 goals for in support during his appearances over the last month of the season, so the IceHogs have been able to keep winning whereas their margin for error earlier in the year was much slimmer as Leighton was barely getting as many goals in support on average as he was allowing.
Going in, goaltending seems to be a wash, unless something happens to Leighton. At that point Carruth would come enter the equation and then all bets are off. Carruth his entire pro career to this point has been a wild card. You never really know what you’ll get from him. He’s usually on one end of the spectrum, really good or the exact opposite.
If you call the goaltending even, and give Texas a slight edge on special teams, you have to give an edge to Texas in the experience game.
Yes, Rockford has Peter Regin, Spencer Abbott, Brandon Mashinter, PC Labrie, Cody Bass and Leighton. But Texas has decidedly more players on its roster with NHL games this year than the team Rockford plans to skate in the series. When you factor in three-quarters of the Stars are returning to defend the Calder Cup they won a year ago, I’d give the experience edge overall to Texas.
Because of budgeting concerns and the distance between the two teams, Rockford begins this series on the road, despite being the #4 seed in this #4 vs #5 matchup.
Texas hosts the IceHogs tonight and Saturday night in Cedar Park. The series shifts to Rockford then on Wednesday, April 29th. If necessary, game 4 is Friday May 1 at the BMO Harris Bank Center. A Game 5 would be held at the BMO on Saturday night May 2nd. Tickets for those three games in Rockford are on sale now through Ticketmaster or the BMO Harris Center box office.
IceHogs enter the playoffs coming off a 3-1 loss to Toronto in Rockford’s regular season finale. The IceHogs largely dominated that game, although the Blackhawks organization chose to sit key players so members of the front office could scout Carl “Calle” Dahlstrom, Robin Press, Vince Hinostroza, Justin Holl and Tanner Kero. So, job justification took precedent over true player development. Several of the players in the lineup that night battled hard, I think understanding the deck had been stacked against them. But in the end, after losing, there was no real sense of disappointment in not winning the division since it was understood the organization clearly didn’t care whether the IceHogs attained that success or not.
Had Rockford won their final game they would have taken the MidWest Division crown, as Grand Rapids lost that night at home to Charlotte. Had Rockford won the division, they would be facing Toronto this week. Instead they’re facing off against the defending Calder Cup Champions, the Texas Stars.
Texas returns 16 players from last year’s Calder Cup Championship squad. A seventeenth, first-round pick Radek Faksa, is out with season-ending shoulder surgery.
There is some debate in Austin as to who the Stars’ goalie will be. Jussi Rynnas recently returned from injury and won his two starts. It was Jack Campbell, however, who was between the pipes for much of the Stars’ run down the stretch.
Rockford won all 4 games in the season-series with Texas, the last three games were all with Jack Campbell in net for Texas (the weekend Klas Dahlbeck was traded with the 1st round to Arizona for Antoine Vermette), when he had just been recalled from the ECHL. He was in net for both losses and again in March when Texas visited Rockford.
A depleted defense is Rockford’s biggest concern going into the series. They lost Kyle Cumiskey, a solid player at this level, to a seat cushion in Chicago. Trevor van Riemsdyk was shut down for the season.
This leaves Stephen Johns and Ville Pokka to carry much of the load. Veteran leader Zach Miskovic and Keith Seabrook will provide the depth. Miskovic sat a lot of the year in favor of younger players. Seabrook has been a surprise in terms of how well he’s fit in, but he’s a third pair guy. The key in this series is Viktor Svedberg, and how well he performs next to Johns on the top pair. Beyond Svedberg-Johns, which was as good as could be expected down the stretch, the challenge for Ted Dent and Mark Osiecki is finding the right left-shooting partner for Ville Pokka. It could be Kirill Gotovets. It may be Dillon Fournier, who missed the last two weeks with a broken finger on his right hand. Or it might be one of the new Swedish defenseman, Dahlstrom and Robin Norell being lefty shots. Robin Press, who impressed the Blackhawks staff more than Dahlstrom did, is a righty. I could see him playing over Miskovich or Seabrook. Or a platoon of some sorts there. But the IceHogs defense is really where Rockford will either win or lose this series. Even in the games over the final couple weeks of the season, the IceHogs were giving up too many high percentage scoring chances. They can’t continue to do that and expect to surpass Texas into the second round.
AHL CALDER CUP PLAYOFFS ~ RUNDOWN & PREDICTIONS
[#1] UTICA COMETS (VAN) vs. [#8] CHICAGO WOLVES (STL)
Vancouver set their farm club up for success in the Calder Cup playoffs and Utica is the heavy favorite here. The Wolves looked like they were content with being dead and falling out of playoff contention in early to mid-March. But a late surge got them in. Losses in Rockford and to Toronto on the final weekend of the season dropped the Wolves to the 8th spot and against Utica, which is a tall task to ask of Rosemont’s hockey club, especially with Ty Rattie up with the Blues right now. With that, Chicago will rely on Magnus Paajarvi, Adam Cracknell, Shane Harper and the veteran presence they get from Colin Fraser, Adam Burish and defenseman, and captain Brent Regner. Put together, that shouldn’t be enough. Utica’s defense is a solid mix that moves their talented offense and generates on its own as well. Jacob Markstrom has returned to form between the pipes and future Canucks Hunter Shinkaruk, Brendan Gaunce, Nicklas Jensen and Alexandre Grenier will gain a load of invaluable experience in what should be a long playoff run. Veterans Cory Conacher, Bobby Sanguinetti and Cal O’Reilly steer the ship there. They seem to be very well coached too. Travis Green is highly thought of. If you were wondering what happened to Ben Eager, who the Wolves signed earlier this season, the Wolves suspended Eager and sent him home from the team in early March.
Prediction: Utica in 3.
[#2] GRAND RAPIDS GRIFFINS (DET) vs. [#7] TORONTO MARLIES (TOR)
This is the matchup Rockford would have had, had the organization cared more about the actual depth of their player development, less about job justification and more of giving its players an opportunity to win their division on the last day of the regular season.
That being said, this is the easiest call in all of the first round. Toronto’ special teams are the 2nd-worst in all the AHL. Their power play (12.8%) and penalty kill (79.1%) rank above only the Iowa Wild in combined special teams, 91.9 to 91.2. Iowa finished 2014-15 with the worst record in all the AHL.
Grand Rapids got 23-year old Teemu Pulkkinen (46gp 34g 27a) back from the Red Wings today, just in time for Game 1 in Toronto. That will offset the loss of Landon Ferraro and defenseman Alexey Marchenko, both up with Detroit right now. Grand Rapids is extremely well coached and this is almost assuredly Jeff Blashill’s final season behind the bench for GR. He could be the Red Wings next coach if Mike Babcock decides to leave.
Prediction: Grand Rapids in 4.
[#3] SAN ANTONIO RAMPAGE (FLA) vs. [#6] OKLAHOMA CITY BARONS (EDM)
This is the second-toughest series to call. The Baron stumbled into postseason but they have the firepower to cause any opponent fits. San Antonio has speed and the offense too, as well as veteran goalie Dan Ellis backstopping them. Oklahoma City took game one of this series at home on Thursday night, but I still see this Rampage team as set up for a run in the west. In the end, I see the west coming down to Utica, Grand Rapids and San Antonio, with Texas being the wild card.
Prediction: San Antonio in 5.
[#4] ROCKFORD ICEHOGS (CHI) vs. [#5] TEXAS STARS (DAL)
See above. This series should be a back and forth struggle. As much as a five-game jaunt can be, anyway.
Prediction: Texas in 5.
I honestly don’t see much of the Eastern Conference, so this is almost entirely based on statistical breakdowns and where these team’s rosters are. Manchester is probably the class of the East at the moment. It’s them and Hershey and everyone else right now. Providence got Pastranak and Spooner back from Boston, so they’re a team to watch out for. Otherwise the East is pretty dreadful.
[#1] MANCHESTER MONARCHS (LAK) vs. [#8] PORTLAND PIRATES (AZC)
Manchester in 4.
[#2] HERSHEY BEARS (WSH) vs. [#7] WORCESTER SHARKS (SJS)
Worcester in 5.
[#3] HARTFORD WOLF PACK (NYR) vs. [#6] PROVIDENCE BRUINS (BOS)
Providence in 5.
[#4] WILKES-BARRE/SCRANTON PENGUINS (PIT) vs. [#5] SYRACUSE CRUNCH (TBL)
Wilkes-Barre in 4.