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WELCOME TO THE WILD WEST

03/11/2015 2:19 PM - Brent Hollerud

Analyzing Rockford’s place in Western Conference playoff picture

With the American Hockey League regular season nearing the final homestretch, it is a time where teams are checking the out-of-town scoreboard as frequently as their own. As the calendar shifts from February to March, every single point is aggrandized, every goal for is a little bit sweeter, just as every goal against stings that much more.  While there is still just over a month left before the official start of the AHL’s second season, ask any player or coach around the league and you will hear a uniform consensus: it’s officially playoff season.

If the Calder Cup Playoffs indeed started today and not in late April, the Rockford IceHogs would be in good standing. Currently in fourth in the Western Conference with 73 points, the IceHogs would enjoy home-ice advantage in the opening round, a feat they have not achieved since their first year in the AHL in 2008.

At this point with 18 games left on their schedule, Rockford seems poised to make it back into the postseason for the first time since 2010. Their current 33-18-5-2 record is the best mark through 58 games in the franchise’s AHL history.  After this weekend’s road trip through Grand Rapids and Chicago, the IceHogs play 10 of their last 16 games at the BMO Harris Bank Center. They have fared well as of late against the other teams in the thick of the playoff race, picking up points recently against Texas, Oklahoma City and Grand Rapids. At short glance it seems hard to envision a scenario where Rockford is not in the top eight when the dust settles.

With that said, forgive the IceHogs and their fans for not penciling in their playoff berth quite yet.  They know firsthand how fleeting a spot in the dance can be this time of year. At the 58-game mark of the 2013-14 AHL season, Rockford had a similarly solid record, sitting in sixth place in West with a 29-21-5-3 mark - with a ten-point cushion over the ninth place team.  But the IceHogs stumbled across the finish line, going 6-11-0-1 over their last 18 contests, leaving them on the outside looking in. The year before that Rockford became the only team in AHL history to win 42 games and not make the playoffs. 

For how hungry this year’s IceHogs team is to make the playoffs and end its four-year postseason drought, they are every bit as wary about how hard it is to do so.

The present landscape of the Western Conference is as tight and competitive as it’s ever been, and it would be to no one’s surprise if it took until the final day of the regular season to decide the final standings.  As of Wednesday, seven points separate the top five teams in the conference, from the top-ranked Griffins with 79 points to the fifth place San Antonio Rampage (72 points). The playoff picture gets even more muddled after that, as teams seven through 12 are only distanced by a meager four points. 

It can be argued that only three teams (Rochester, Charlotte and Iowa) are effectively out of contention, and little, if anything, as far as top-eight positioning is set in stone. The current up-in-the-air nature of the Western Conference means that an awful lot of meaningful hockey will be played over the next month by a lot of desperate teams.  It will be fun to watch unfold, just as it will be incredibly nerve-racking for those with vested interests.

So what do the IceHogs have to do in the final five weeks to ensure that they will finish on the right side of the AHL’s playoff bubble?

Just Win, Baby: Perhaps the biggest benefit that Rockford’s strong showing through the three-quarter mark brings is that as of Week 23 the IceHogs are entirely in control of their own playoff lives. They have so far found a way to avoid the cloud of uncertainty that surrounds the 7-10 range of the standings, when teams need to pair their own success with outside help in order to keep their footing. 

While the AHL’s daily Playoff Primer lists Rockford’s Magic Number (points needed to clinch a postseason berth) at 29, it is important to remember that the Magic Number dwindles both with IceHogs wins and losses by the teams chasing them.  Realistically Rockford should be able to crack the top eight if they can even manage a .500 record over their remaining games.

Chasing Grand Rapids: But for a team that has played a sizable chunk of the season atop their conference and division, the IceHogs are determined to do better than slinking into the playoffs. But with the top three seeds reserved for division champions, there is only one way for Rockford to improve on their fourth-place standing - catching the blazing-hot Griffins.

The opportunity is there however, as Rockford and Grand Rapids have three meetings with each other remaining on the schedule, beginning on Saturday in Michigan. Additionally, the IceHogs will have a full three games in hand on their rivals to the east as the puck drops at Van Andel Arena.

With the Griffins in the midst of a 16-game point streak, and with only one regulation loss in their last 22 games, reclaiming the division lead is going to be no easy task for Rockford.  But at any rate, the three games left between the top teams in the Midwest will be key, both to settle the division race and as a preview of a possible 1 vs. 4 second round matchup that could happen if both teams hold pace and make it through the conference quarterfinals.

Battle Tested:  Prior to their game this Saturday in Grand Rapids, Rockford will have at least one game in hand on every team in the top eight except the Adirondack Flames. On one hand this can seem like a blessing as it gives the IceHogs more of a chance to catch those ahead of them or to create distance from those chasing them. But a harsh reality of having extra games on the rest of the conference is having to play more in a shorter stretch of time to even everything out.

Saturday marks the end of a stretch beginning on Feb. 28 where Rockford played only four games in a 15-day stretch, while kicking off a new 15-day span where they will play eight times.  After this weekend’s road swing, the IceHogs will be tasked with playing three or four games a week for the remainder of the season.

The teams left for Rockford to play will only add to the difficulty of the regular season’s final month.  Aside from the three games remaining with the Griffins and a trip to Utica to take on the third place Comets, the IceHogs have a host of games against teams fighting tooth-and-nail for their playoff lives. Rockford squares off with Adirondack (three times), Texas, Toronto and Lake Erie, all who find themselves precariously on or behind the bubble.

There are also a pair of games left between the IceHogs and the Chicago Wolves to decide who wins the Illinois Lottery Cup. While the Wolves would obviously like to keep the Lottery Cup from being awarded to Rockford (which it will with one IceHogs victory), they currently have a bigger motivation for winning. Currently in 10th place, Chicago is in danger of missing the playoffs for the second time in three years.

Playing a heavier schedule against a host of potential playoff teams is inarguably a tough order for any squad. But it is a challenge that the IceHogs can glean a lot from if they can find a way to stay near the top of the conference.

The best preparation for the AHL postseason is to play a playoff-style schedule down the stretch. That is exactly what lies in front of the IceHogs in the next several weeks.

12 teams.  19 points of separation.  Battling for eight spots.

Welcome to the wild West.

#MOMOMENTS

02/04/2015 3:10 PM - Brent Hollerud

Leading up to this Saturday’s Jeremy Morin Bobblehead Giveaway, the IceHogs are celebrating their all-time leading goal scorer. Make sure to share your favorite #MoMoments on the IceHogs Facebook (/rockfordicehogs) and Twitter (@goicehogs) accounts all week long!

Long-term fans of AHL teams quickly become experts of letting go.

Most of the time they don’t even have a choice. The AHL - like most minor league sports institutions - is at its core a development league, where transactions and roster turnover are as commonplace as the colorful and wacky promotions created by its member teams.

But along with the distinction of being the proverbial front door to the NHL, comes a bittersweet truth to the supporters of AHL teams: if a player is performing well, chances are he won’t be in town for much longer.  Talent giveth, and talent taketh away, so to speak.

That being said, winger Jeremy Morin had plenty of time to endear himself to the Rockford faithful, playing in 208 games over the course of five seasons in the Forest City. Only six players have appeared in more games in an IceHogs jersey than him, and only his long-time running mate Brandon Pirri (200 points) has scored more points than Morin’s 158.  No one, however, has more than Morin’s 81 goals in an IceHogs uniform.

“Jeremy was one of the best natural goal scorers in Rockford’s AHL-era,” said Mike Peck, the IceHog Director of Business Operations and broadcaster. “It was definitely fun getting to watch him mature from a prospect to a dominant AHL player.”

A 2009 second-round draft pick of the Atlanta Thrashers, Morin came to the Blackhawks organization in the trade that shook up the Chicago roster in the wake of their 2010 Stanley Cup Championship. The Blackhawks acquired the Auburn, N.Y. native, along with Marty Reasoner, Joey Crabb and first and second-round picks in the 2010 draft, in exchange for Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Sopel, Ben Eager and Akim Aliu.

The young forward, only 19 when making his professional debut in Rockford on Oct. 9, 2010, didn’t waste much time becoming an impact player in the Chicago system. Morin earned his first NHL recall within a month of playing his first AHL game, making his Blackhawks debut on Nov. 6, 2010 and scoring his first NHL goal in his sixth game on Dec. 8, 2010.

While Morin played bits and pieces of his first four professional seasons with the big club in Chicago, he thrived during his time in Rockford.  After only suiting up in 22 games his rookie season with the IceHogs, Morin exploded for 40, 58 and 47 points respectively over the next three campaigns. His 58 points in 2012-13 set an AHL franchise record for points in a single season by a left winger, and his 24 goals in 2013-14 paced a Rockford club which he only appeared in 47 games for. Morin was also named the IceHogs’ MVP that season.

But for the product of the United States National Team Development Program and the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League, Morin’s offensive upside is just one facet of his game. A player who is equal parts skilled and scrappy, Morin seemed to enjoy joining a post-whistle scrum or throwing a big hit just as much as he enjoyed scoring goals. Racking up 301 penalty minutes in his time with the IceHogs, Morin relished the role of agitator as well as sniper.

“Not only could he score, he was able to provide some of the grit that your team needs,” Peck explained. “That combination of skill and sandpaper was a good mix for fans in this area, and that is why Morin was a fan favorite.”

Morin’s time in the Chicago organization came to an end on Dec. 14 when the Blackhawks dealt him to the Columbus Blue Jackets for defenseman Tim Erixon. That is not to say that his impact on IceHogs fans has gone anywhere.  Morin left his name etched in the franchise history books and in the memories of those who enjoyed his bone crushing hits, his scoring talent and his electrifying enthusiasm. And now, after Saturday night, fans can make room for him (at least a likeness of him) on their mantles and office desks alike. That is not something the revolving door of the AHL will make them part ways with.