In the infamous words of Michael Scott: “It’s over. We are screwed.”
Well, not quite yet, but it’s looking pretty grim for the Rockford IceHogs Calder Cup Playoff chances as the season heads into February.
For the IceHogs, the month of January could not end soon enough. Aside from a better than anticipated showing during the AHL All-Star weekend from goaltender Kevin Lankinen, the IceHogs had a dismal month of January. Which isn’t surprising given the state of the team and the level of play that the team has exhibited since the third week of December.
Rockford is in a bad spot. With not much hope on the horizon when it comes to injuries, the IceHogs are icing a lineup that would be particularly competitive in the ECHL, but is doing them less favors at the AHL level. If something doesn’t change for the better soon, the 2019-20 season could be written off in Rockford as a lost cause.
IceHogs’ winter blues continue
The benchmark for when things began to go south for Rockford continues to be December 21. Since that game, a 3-2 loss at home to the Cleveland Monsters, the IceHogs have mustered up just three wins. They have a 3-14-2 record over that stretch and have fallen from second-place in the AHL Central Division to seventh-place in the Division.
The lost points and the drop in the standings hurts, but the slim silver-lining is that the gap between the third-place Chicago Wolves and the San Antonio Rampage at the bottom of the Division is just seven points. Rockford, with 43 points, sits just three points out of the final Calder Cup Playoff spot in the Central, currently held by the Texas Stars and Grand Rapids Griffins with 46 points.
But the slide down the standings since before the Christmas break has been highlighted by some spectacular losses. They have given up five or more goals in five of those losses, three against the league-leading Milwaukee Admirals alone. Rockford has been shutout in three of those losses. They are averaging just 1.68 goals per game during this 19-game stretch.
The offensive spark has not been there on a consistent basis for the IceHogs this season, especially as of late. Their 116 goals scored this year ranks 29th in the AHL, and their -31 goal differential also ranks 29th in the league. Only the Ontario Reign (-40) and Bridgeport Sound Tigers (-51) have worse differentials this season. And while getting powerplays has not been a problem for Rockford this season, ranking eighth in the league in opportunities (193), they sit in 30th in the league in powerplay percentage at 11.9%, only Bridgeport has been worse on the man-advantage this season.
Rockford ranks third in the Central Division based on team save percentage this season, with Kevin Lankinen, Collin Delia, and Matt Tomkins combining for a .905 marker. Tomkins and Delia are tied for the team-leading save percentage at .906, with Lankinen not far off with a .904. All three goaltenders have had their ups and downs this season, but their downs have never overlapped as Tomkins and Lankinen shined during Delia’s early-season slump and Delia has been playing considerably better as of late while Lankinen has dropped his last eight starts in net.
The walking wounded
The roster is not built the way that the team would have anticipated at the beginning of the season. Kris Versteeg and Philip Holm both left the team unexpectedly, early-season top contributors like Matthew Highmore, Dylan Sikura, Adam Boqvist, and Dennis Gilbert have seen significant time with the Chicago Blackhawks this season, and injuries upon injuries have taken their toll on the IceHogs ability to field a competent AHL roster. In January alone, the IceHogs went through 28 roster transactions across the NHL, AHL, and ECHL levels.
Most notably for Rockford has been the loss of offensive production from Philipp Kurashev and Anton Wedin. Both players are still in the top ten in scoring for the IceHogs, despite missing nearly half of the season due to injuries. Kurashev ranks third on the team in rookie scoring with 16 points this season and both he and Wedin ranked inside the top five for the IceHogs in points prior to their injuries.
Wedin had four points over this last four games with the IceHogs from December 15-31, including a two-point night on December 31, but that would be his last game with Rockford before heading to the injury list.
Kurashev saw a major turn for the better in his on-ice production prior to leaving the IceHogs roster. In his last 13 games from November 29 to December 29, Kurashev tallied 11 points including a three-point night against the Toronto Marlies on December 15.
Add to the list the games missed by Tim Soderlund and Mikael Hakkarinen, as well as the fact that both Nick Moutrey and Jacob Nilsson have now been bitten by the injury bug, and the IceHogs are having a hard time seeing light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to the health of the squad.
One of the few positives that has been consistent for the IceHogs this season has been the emergence of Brandon Hagel. Currently sitting second on the team in scoring behind Tyler Sikura (26), Hagel leads all IceHogs rookies in points (24), goals (16), and shots on goal (95). He has also skated in the most games of any rookie this season with 44 appearances and his .55 points per game pace is fourth among active skaters for the IceHogs.
— Mario Tirabassi (@Mario_Tirabassi) February 1, 2020
In the AHL for rookie ranks, Hagel is tied for 11th in the league in points and fifth in goal scoring. An impressive rookie season for Hagel has been bolstered by a couple stretches of quality play. From October 30 to December 10, Hagel did not go more than a game between tallying points with 12 points over a 17-game stretch. He quickly followed that up with an eight point run over a ten-game stretch from December 20 to January 11 and currently has goals in back to back games as a part of a three goals in four games stretch from January 24 to February 1.
— Mario Tirabassi (@Mario_Tirabassi) February 2, 2020
He also received his first call-up to the NHL in his career, joining the Blackhawks for a two-game stint from January 16-20. Although he didn’t get to dress for his first career NHL game, the recall shows that the Blackhawks have Hagel on their radar, as he should be. Given the state of the roster with players missing significant time due to injuries and recalls, Hagel has been thrust into a top-line role for the IceHogs in his first full season as a professional and has answered the bell continuously for Rockford.
The Rockford IceHogs get back in action on Tuesday, February 4 as they take on the Texas Stars at the BMO Harris Bank Center in Rockford. Puck drop on Tuesday night is set for 7 p.m. CST. It is the fourth game of a six-game homestand and the eighth game of a ten-game stretch where the IceHogs haven’t had to travel more than 90 minutes to play.
Rockford is 0-2-1 in their last three home games and 2-7-1 over their last ten games. The IceHogs hold a 1-1-1 record against the Stars the season and sit three points behind the Stars in the Central Division standings.