While the Rockford IceHogs are currently missing a number of key pieces from their lineup, the current run of success has not taken a hit. After a three-game road trip through Canada that saw them take four of a possible six points against the Belleville Senators, Toronto Marlies and Laval Rocket, the IceHogs continue to sit in second place in the AHL Central Division with 33 points.
Great White North
The IceHogs faced a tough and historic Canadian road trip that started back on Friday when Rockford took on the Belleville Senators for the first time in AHL franchise history. It would mark the first of three games for the IceHogs against Canadian opponents on the road over the next five days. Rockford got off to a slow start against the Senators on Friday, falling behind 1–0 on a shorthanded goal in the first period and down 2–0 just 28 seconds into the second period.
The IceHogs were able to swing the game’s momentum back in their favor in the second period with Nicolas Beaudin scoring his first professional goal to make it a 2–1 game heading into the third period.
Just as the Senators opened the second period with a fast goal, the IceHogs returned the favor as John Quenneville scored his fifth goal of the season to tie the game 2–2 early in the third period. Belleville battled back though, scoring three unanswered goals to take a 5–2 win over the IceHogs in the first-ever meeting between the teams. Matt Tomkins was in net for the IceHogs, making 26 saves on 30 shots faced, seeing his record fall to 4–2–0 on the year.
Following the loss in Belleville, the IceHogs remained in Ontario to take on the Toronto Marlies on Sunday. The second of two meetings between the clubs this season, the IceHogs were able to take the game on Sunday and sweep the season two-game mini series.
Rockford was backstopped by Kevin Lankinen against the Marlies. Lankinen’s last performance was a record-setting 55-save effort against the Milwaukee Admirals in a 2–1 overtime win. His action on Sunday against Toronto was much different, only facing 13 shots and making 11 saves in the 4–2 win. Lankinen’s record on the season improved to 7–3–1, as he was helped offensively by Quenneville (two goals, one assist) and Philipp Kurashev (one goal, two assists), both with three points on the night.
Wrapping up the Canadian road trip for the IceHogs would be another two-game mini-series finale game, this time against Laval Rocket in Laval, Quebec, Canada. Unlike against the Marlies, the IceHogs dropped the first meeting this season against the Rocket back in Rockford. Looking to split the mini series, the IceHogs were quickly down in a 2–0 hole against the Rocket in the first period.
Collin Delia got the start in net against Laval, coming off back-to-back wins in his last two starts. After giving up only 13 total shots against the Marlies, the IceHogs gave up 16 shots in the first period against the Rocket, with Delia making 14 saves. Battling back, the IceHogs cut into the Rocket lead in the second period thanks to a shorthanded goal from Joseph Cramarossa, his first with the IceHogs this season.
Trailing 2–1 heading into the third period, Rockford would benefit from another player scoring their first goal with the team this season, as Dmitry Osipov tied the game with his first career AHL goal. Knotted up at 2–2, the IceHogs forced overtime and eventually went to the shootout. Delia stood tall again for the IceHogs, making stops on all five shooters he faced in the shootout, leading to Anton Wedin getting the eventual winner for Rockford.
Going 2–1–0 on the road trip, the IceHogs record improves to 16–10–1 on the year. They sit in second place in the AHL Central Division with 33 points in 27 games played, 12 points behind the first place Milwaukee Admirals. Rockford’s 27 games played are the fewest in the Central Division.
The IceHogs current run since Oct. 30 has been impressive. A 14–5–1 record over their last 20 games has helped propel Rockford into their current second-place standing in the Central Division. A major component to their success, surprisingly, has been the IceHogs’ special-teams work on the penalty kill.
Once the worst unit in the AHL, the IceHogs now possess the league’s 25th-ranked penalty kill. While that is still far from stellar, Rockford been great over its last 20 games while playing a man down. The IceHogs have killed 31 of their last 33 penalties against them, including 18 straight heading into their game against Laval on Tuesday night. Paired with above-average goaltending across the board in net for the IceHogs, facing a man advantage has not been a struggle during their recent run. Rockford also sits in a tie for third in the AHL with seven shorthanded goals for this season.
And the beat goes on
While the improvements to the penalty kill have helped keep opponents off the board against the IceHogs, the loss of a few key players for Rockford has created a hole offensively. With injuries to the Chicago Blackhawks, the IceHogs have seen top minute eaters and point producers be recalled to the NHL. Losing Adam Boqvist, Dennis Gilbert, Matthew Highmore and Dylan Sikura in the last two weeks has provided a tough obstacle for the IceHogs to handle. Those four players account for a major chunk of production for Rockford and have forced head coach Derek King to play players in roles they have not been exposed to at this point in the season.
To the benefit of the IceHogs, those players have stepped up and filled the holes left by the major four players being recalled to Chicago. With an already young roster, the IceHogs’ rookie class has been on full display over the last handful of games. Players like Nicolas Beaudin, MacKenzie Entwistle, Brandon Hagel and Kurashev have seen their roles in the lineup and minutes played increase and they have responded well to those assignments.
Along with increasing the minutes and responsibilities for the rookies, the IceHogs have also benefited from recalls themselves. Adding Dylan McLaughlin, Osipov, Mathew Thompson and Ben Youds from the ECHL’s Indy Fuel, the IceHogs are seeing value form the depth of the Chicago Blackhawks’ organization. Youds has four assists in four games since signing a PTO with Rockford, while Osipov has played significant minutes in the defensive lineup and tallied his first AHL goal on Tuesday night.
Colliton: "We do feel that both Boqvist and Gilbert have earned the chance to continue to take steps forward. So they need opportunity to do it."
— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) December 18, 2019
Opportunities continue to loom large for the young IceHogs, as it looks like the Blackhawks may not be ready to let go of Boqvist and Gilbert from their defensive rotation anytime soon. Rockford will look for continued growth from their rookie class to continue their current run of success.
As their current form continues to push them toward the top of the AHL Central Division, the IceHogs are riding a few hot streaks along the way.
Rockford’s recent hot streaks start in net with Kevin Lankinen, who has won three of his last four starts, including setting the IceHogs’ AHL franchise record with 55 saves against the Milwaukee Admirals on Dec. 10. Lankinen leads the IceHogs with a .924 save percentage this season, which ranks seventh in the AHL. He has allowed two or fewer goals in seven of his 11 starts this season, all victories.
As mentioned before, the IceHogs are currently leaning heavily on rookie production to keep their current pace alive. One of the rookies that has stepped up into a major role is forward Philipp Kurashev. After a slow start to the season, much like most of the Rockford rookies, Kurashev has turned a corner and is now playing top-line minutes and in all situations for the IceHogs. Kurashev has eight points in his last nine games, including a three-point night against the Toronto Marlies on Sunday. He ranks in a four-way tie for second on the team in scoring and is tied for the team lead with Brandon Hagel for rookie scoring with 13 points in 25 games played.
But it is not all rookies, all the time for the IceHogs. Veteran leadership has played a key role in their recent successful stretch of play. Leading the way is one of the young vets of the team in John Quenneville. After missing a portion of the season early with an injury, Quenneville has slotted into a top role offensively for the IceHogs. He has 10 points in 17 games played this season and ranks third on the team in goals with seven. In his last 13 games, Quenneville has tallied nine points and is currently is riding a three-game point streak with five points over that span.
Finally, returning to the net, the IceHogs were hoping Collin Delia would be their sure-fire No. 1 starter from day one of the season. He was given that role but did not play up to it early on in the year. After losing ice time to Lankinen and Matt Tomkins, Delia has rebounded from his sub-par start to the year. Delia is 3–0–0 in his last three starts, having allowed just five goals over that span and stopping 96 of 101 shots faced (.951 save percentage) during that span. His record this season is 5–5–0 through 10 starts with a .892 save percentage and a 3.30 goals against average.
One last note from the vaunted Rockford IceHogs fun fact department: The IceHogs have not lost back-to-back games over their last 20 contests.
The Rockford IceHogs are back in action on Friday, as they take on the Texas Stars in a home divisional matchup. Rockford lost the only matchup between the teams this season, a 7–6 shootout loss on Nov. 23 in Cedar Park, Texas. Friday’s contest is set for a 7 p.m. CST puck drop at the BMO Harris Bank Center in Rockford.
Following Friday, the IceHogs turn around for another home game on Saturday night, hosting the Cleveland Monsters. The third of four meetings between the teams this season, Rockford dropped the first two meetings with back-to-back losses in Cleveland on Oct. 25–26. Saturday’s puck drop is scheduled for 6 p.m. CST in Rockford.