By Chris Block
A healthy influx of fresh prospects and NHL experienced forwards have helped drive the Rockford IceHogs to their best start since the 2014-15 campaign.
Rockford rolled off 6 wins in its initial 7 contests, with the only loss coming to rival Milwaukee.
Since, the IceHogs have faltered a bit, losing 3 of their last four and mustering just 9 goals in those four outings. Three of Rockford’s defeats overall have come against Milwaukee, with the other a 3-2 Halloween loss at Cleveland, a night the IceHogs power play let them down (0 for 7).
In all, it’s just the 4th time in 11 seasons that Rockford has posted 7 wins in its initial 10 games. Only once in those three other seasons did the IceHogs go on to fail to qualify for the postseason. That year, 2013, Rockford followed up a 7-2-1-0 start by losing 8 of its next 10. They eventually missed the playoffs by 4 points. The 2008-09 and 2014-15 teams did go on to the playoffs.
This year’s group has been steered by a combination of speed, solid blue line and goaltending play.
Rockford’s high-pace attack has caused opponents all some fits in the early going, but it’s come with some growing pains as some opponents have been able to take advantage of Rockford’s over-aggressive forecheck at times in transition.
IceHogs first-year coach Jeremy Colliton admits it’s still a work in progress.
“That’s part of the push-pull of that,” Colliton described after Rockford’s third period come-from behind 4-3 win over Grand Rapids on Oct 28.
“I guess the thing is,” Colliton continued, “if you wanna play that aggressive, then you gotta make sure you don’t get beat back home. That’s the thing.
“So, for our guys, if they wanna have the privilege of being able to push, and be aggressive on the forecheck, and try to create offense, then that’s fine. But then when the puck turns over, from offense to defense, we got to make sure we have numbers (getting) back. So, we’re still working on that.”
Thus far, Rockford’s goaltending has largely been up to the task.
Jean-Francois “J-F” Berube won his first five starts to the tune of a 1.38 goal against and .950 save percentage. Since then, he’s lost three in-a-row. Berube has posted a 3.44 GAA and .875 save percentage in his past three starts. The lineups in front of Berube on those three nights provided a total of 5 goals for, so as the offense has cooled, so has the goaltending.
Vince Hinostroza is attempting to reinforce his assertion of being an NHL player in an AHL uniform.
The third year pro, Hinostroza, 23, has shown considerable improvements year-to-year. After being one of the final Blackhawks cuts, he stormed out with 4 goals and 6 assists in his first 7 games. Rockford got off to a 6-1-0-0 record in that time.
However, like the IceHogs, Hinostroza has cooled off since that start – breaking the score sheet just once in his last four games with 1 assist. The IceHogs went 1-3-0-0 in that stretch. It wouldn’t be fair to say, ‘how Vince goes, the ‘Hogs go’ but Rockford was posting 4.14 goals per game over those first seven contests and just 2.25 per game since. So, there is some correlation.
Hinostroza has almost exclusively been skating on a line with Matthew Highmore and Luke Johnson. All three are centers but Highmore has been handling most of the center ice duties, at least of late.
Highmore has caught the eye of a lot of people in the early going. His speed and forechecking are most reminiscent of a guy like Rob Klinkhammer. The finish is touch-and-go, also ala Klinkhammer. Highmore, 21, gets up the ice efficiently and is not shy of contact. So far, he’s netted 5 goals to go along with 3 helpers. Six of his eight points came over the initial five games of the season. Then, perhaps his best game of the season came October 28th vs Grand Rapids when he scored 2 goals and was named the game’s first star. Those two goals are his only points in the past six games, which highlights how that Hinostroza line has struggled to provide offense in the past couple of weeks.
On the blue line, Erik Gustafsson and Viktor Svedberg have been the most impressive in the early going. Svedberg is healthy, seemingly for the first time in a couple years as he’s struggled with injuries almost his entire time since coming to North America.
Gustafsson has settled down and is a much more steady and effective puck mover than he was in Rockford a year ago at this time.
Tomas Jurco, Laurent Dauphin and David Kampf give the lineup good balance. Some of the other pieces up front, though, are still trying to find their way.
Colliton’s line combinations remained steady last week.
Hinostroza – Highmore – Johnson
Fortin – Kampf – Jurco
Iacopelli/Louis – Dauphin – Martinsen
Knott – Sikura – Pelletier
Gustafsson – Raddysh
Svedberg – Pokka
Norell/Snuggerud – Dahlstrom
The Week Ahead
Rockford does its second 3-in-3 jaunt on the young season beginning Thursday when they’ll be in Des Moines for a School Day game start at 10:35am against the Iowa Wild.
Friday, its back at the BMO in Rockford to face San Antonio. Then, the IceHogs go back to Milwaukee on Saturday night, 11/11, to face the Admirals for the fifth time already this year. After Saturday, the two teams won’t meet again until the Ads visit Rockford on January 7th. The Central Division rivals are set to face off ten times this season.
It’ll be an interesting set of games to watch. Like Rockford, Iowa has been off since 11/3. So, they’ve had a lot of time to prepare and should be at their best, whatever that is. Iowa (NHL-Wild) is… not good, but they have played the IceHogs tough in two games thus far and these morning puck drops are often tough to predict. All three of Iowa’s wins have come on home ice.
San Antonio (NHL-Avalanche), like the IceHogs, got off to a good start but have slipped a little of late. They got ripped by Grand Rapids 7-4 in a morning face off Wednesday in Grand Rapids.
Milwaukee just seems to have Rockford’s number right now. They share an identical overall record with Rockford of 7-4-0-0 now after the Ads beat the Chicago Wolves in Milwaukee 3-0 today. If you’re Rockford, you’d be happy with 4 out of 6 points this week to get the ship righted here after losing 3 of the last 4 games.
Goaltender Collin Delia and defenseman Robin Press were summoned back to Rockford on Sunday night. Delia may stick around for a bit. In Press’ case, he was only in for a few days of skills development practices. Rockford is carrying seven healthy defensemen without Press, who began the season with the IceHogs until Luc Snuggerud recovered from his preseason injury.
Not Yet Noel
Center Nathan Noel has yet to appear in a game since recovering enough from an apparent knee injury he suffered September’s prospect tournament to be reassigned here by the NHL Blackhawks on October 18.
Noel, 20, was a 4th round pick of the Blackhawks in the 2016 Entry Draft.
Jeremy Colliton gave an update on Noel’s status after the last IceHogs home game.
“He’s progressing,” Colliton said. “We’re getting him back in game shape. When we feel he’s ready to go then we’ll hopefully get him in somewhere.”
That ‘somewhere’ figures to eventually be Rockford, but the ambiguity in Colliton’s words could suggest a stint in Indianapolis (ECHL) beforehand.
Noel was teammates with Matthew Highmore on the Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL) the past four seasons. Highmore led the Sea Dogs in scoring in 2015-16 and 2016-17. Noel led the 2014-15 Saint John squad.
[UPDATE: Shortly after this was published, the Blackhawks announced they have reassigned Noel to the Indy Fuel [ECHL].
Bob Mills Leaves IceHogs
Less than a month into his 3rd season as play-by-play announcer and communication director with Rockford, Bob Mills has resigned from his roles with the organization.
Bob Mills joined the IceHogs prior to the 2015-16 season, when the former IceHogs play-by-play voice, Mike Peck, accepted a promotion to Director of Business Operations, the number two position within the Rockford end of the front office. Mills final day with the club was October 31st. His final game call came the same night, at Cleveland.
Mills served as both play-by-play voice of the IceHogs, as well as the club’s Communications Coordinator. Management is now searching for someone to fill each of those roles.
Until then, Mike Peck is expected to fill in as the play-by-play voice. It would be an inconvenience, at best, for this to happen at any point during the hockey season. However, considering the IceHogs have just two overnight road trips between the time of Mills’ exit and mid-December, the scheduling couldn’t really be any more favorable should Peck’s time being the microphone stretch into December. There is a four-day trip to San Antonio from December 14-17, the only extended excursion the IceHogs have before the Christmas break.
Mills departure did not come as a surprise to IceHogs management. He advised them at the time he put his resume in for a communications position at Purdue University in August. Mills was officially offered the position with Purdue’s Honors College the day before Rockford’s season began. Shortly thereafter, he accepted and worked out the timing of his move with Purdue. His resignation wasn’t announced by the IceHogs until October 28th.
His new role at Purdue is non-sports related. At least for now, Mills is seemingly forgoing a future in hockey and sports broadcasting.
Mills, an Indianapolis native, is married with a young daughter. Prior to joining the IceHogs in July of 2015, he served as broadcaster and Director of Media Relations for the Orlando Solar Bears [ECHL]. He was honored in 2012 as the ECHL Broadcaster of the Year in his one season calling games for the Chicago Express. A 2009 graduate of Bowling Green University, Mills also spent time calling games for the Bakersfield Condors and Gwinnett [GA] Gladiators, all in the ECHL. Over his career Mills called close to 500 games.
Second-year IceHogs goaltender Jeff Glass, 31, and his wife welcomed their first child on October 25th, a daughter, Lucy Ryan.
Glass had to miss Rockford’s trip to Iowa when his wife was scheduled to be induced. Indy Fuel goalie Etienne Marcoux, 24, was signed to a professional try out contract just for the October 25th game at Iowa. He was returned to the Fuel following that game.
A Calgary native, and 2004 third round (#89) draft pick of the Ottawa Senators, Glass was signed to a minor-league contract by the IceHogs last January. The next month, he was picked up by the Blackhawks on an NHL deal that runs through the end of this 2017-18 season. Glass was the main goalie for that star-studded 2005 Canadian U-20 World Junior team that won the gold medal in Grand Forks, North Dakota, trouncing Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin’s Russian squad in the final game.
Marcoux, a Montreal suburban native, appeared in all three of Indy’s games this past weekend. He dropped a 3-2 shootout loss in Moline on Friday night. Back in Indy on Saturday night, Marcoux backstopped 37 minutes of shutout relief duty after starter Collin Delia allowed 5 goals to the Wheeling Nailers. The Fuel went on to lose that game 5-1. On Sunday, Marcoux got the start and surrendered three in a 3-2 loss to the Toledo Walleye in front of 1,973 afternoon crowd at Indiana Farmers Coliseum. Delia was reassigned to Rockford by the Blackhawks after the game. He had served as Rockford’s backup to J-F Berube last Friday in Milwaukee. He was then sent back to Indy following that game and now is back with the IceHogs.
Indy’s third goalie at the moment is 25 year old Chicago native, Cody Karpinksi. He played his collegiate career at Lindenwood University (ACHA) outside St. Louis under head coach Rick Zombo from 2013-2017. Karpinski attended Conant High School in Hoffman Estates before playing junior hockey for the Brockville Braves along the Canadian border just south of Ottawa.
Matt Tompkins, who signed a one-year AHL contract with Rockford in June, is currently out with a leg injury. He was assigned to Indy before the season began. Tompkins completed his four-year collegiate career at Ohio State this past spring. The Blackhawks drafted Tomkins in the 7th round of the 2012 Entry Draft. He battled for ice time for much of his Ohio State career but finished with a strong senior season. Prior the injury he suffered during the 2nd period of a game on Oct 25th, Tomkins had stopped 40 of 42 shots (.952].