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ROAD TRIPPIN'

10/14/2014 3:43 PM - Brent Hollerud

After the weeks of hype, speculation and roster-analyzing that led up to the start of the 2014-15 season, on Saturday the IceHogs players finally had the opportunity to do what they came to Rockford to do: play hockey.

While the home opener may have ended in Milwaukee’s favor, there were plenty of things to like and get excited for regarding this Rockford club moving forward. Unfortunately for the IceHogs, the road is about to get much tougher in the coming two weeks, as they will be thrust out of the comfy confines of the BMO Harris Bank Center and into the heat of their longest road trip of the season beginning in Adirondack this Thursday.

Even with the challenge that lies ahead, the tale of the tape from game number one may suggest that there is no reason to believe the Hogs can’t come back from their four-game road swing on a winning streak.

Hello Offensive Depth
The final scoresheet from Rockford’s 3-2 loss to the Admirals might not show it, but the home team showed on Saturday that they just might have a considerable amount of offensive upside throughout their lineup. Each of the top three forward units enjoyed periods of extended pressure against the Milwaukee defense, and so-called “fourth-line” forwards Phillip Danault and Matt Carey set up the first IceHogs goal by Ryan Hartman. The lines were so balanced that Head Coach Ted Dent has refused to designate a clear third or fourth unit, giving each group similar ice time.

Rockford’s surplus of talented forwards could make it extremely difficult for opposing teams to contain, as opponents have to find a way to match up against a daunting top-six that consists of Hartman-Dennis Rasmussen-Joakim Nordstrom and Mark McNeill-Teuvo Teravainen-Peter Regin. Add in a third group that saw Pierre-Cedric Labrie and his hard-nosed style of play complement Garret Ross and Alex Broadhurst and the Western Conference could have their hands full keeping the IceHogs offense in check this season.

Power Play Ready to Ignite
Another area where the IceHogs stand to benefit from their wealth of offensive skill is with the man advantage. Once again, the opening night statsheet is misleading, as the 0-for-5 mark the Rockford power play turned in against the Admirals was far uglier than what actually transpired on the ice.

Milwaukee relied on a few timely saves by goalie Marek Mazanek and a slew of blocked shots to keep the IceHogs from scoring, but for the most part Rockford was able to keep the pressure up during each of their power play opportunites, generating several grade-A scoring chances.

Wunderkind Teuvo Teravainen was a constant threat with the extra man on Saturday, as he was able to showcase his poise and patience with the puck when he had a little extra space to operate. With as much skill as guys like Teravainen, Hartman and Rasmussen have down low, and with a first defensemen pairing like Adam Clendening and T.J. Brennan patrolling the blue line, the law of averages dictates that the Rockford power play should have no problem finding the back of the net with ease, and soon.

The Brennan-Clendening Connection

A lot was said in the aftermath of the Leddy-to-the-Islanders trade about the impact 2014 AHL defenseman of the year T.J. Brennan would have with the IceHogs. Brennan, who led the league last season in defensemen scoring (72 points), was to join the man who finished just below him on the leaderboard in Adam Clendening, giving the IceHogs unparalleled scoring depth on their blue line.

While the two were in separate pairings against the Admirals (with Clendening matched with Klas Dahlback and Brennan playing alongside Zach Miskovic), the two joined forces on the power play, showing great potential in the one-game sample size. Both were elite puck movers on their own, evidenced by the 94 combined assists they racked up in 2013-14, but time will tell how successful they can be together.

“Clendo is a great player, obviously [last year] he had a remarkable season, and I’m getting to know him as a person and as a player,” Brennan said about his teammate. “It’s our job to find [chemistry between us], and we both like to think that it will be a positive thing working together on the power play. We have a lot of common goals and we both see the bigger picture on how we can help the team offensively.”

Hitting the Road

In a league that plays so many games over the course of the year, against teams from all over the country, grueling road trips are just the nature of the beast in the AHL. Thanks to how their 2014-15 schedule panned out, the IceHogs will be getting their longest trip out of the way before the end of their first month of hockey.

Now whether being faced with a stretch of four games in eight days across four cities this early in the season is a burden or a blessing is simply a matter of perspective. For the IceHogs the difficult task at hand is one they are excited to meet head on.

“I think it’s great,” Brennan explained when asked about the east coast journey. “You are thrown into the fire early with all of the boys, and get a good chance to know anyone. I think it is a positive thing.”

Brennan went on to tell how life on the road is an essential part of being a professional athlete, and if a team can approach all the hotel rooms, bus rides and restaurant meals with the right mind set, they can reap a few important benefits from their time away from home.

“The long road trips are where you get to know your players the most,” Brennan continued. “When everyone is sick of each other and tired, their true character comes out. You have to persevere a little bit but it makes you stronger in the end.”
 

AS THE DUST SETTLES

10/06/2014 3:38 PM - Brent Hollerud

Training camp is typically a period of mass chaos for an AHL organization. The last couple weeks for the IceHogs were no different, as new faces, an intense practice schedule, a pair of preseason games and roster moves-galore all combined to make Rockford the center of a maelstrom of excitement and change heading into the new season.  Add in a marquee trade by the Blackhawks over the weekend and it is not hard to blame any IceHogs fan who might be unsure of exactly what happened since camp opened on Sep. 28.

So now that Oct. 11 is rapidly approaching and the IceHogs’ opening night roster is beginning to materialize, here are a few highlights of what has been a crazy preseason and what to look forward to as the 2014-15 campaign gets underway.

Get used to 3-on-3

One of the most talked about tweaks to the AHL rulebook over the offseason is the re-vamped overtime format, and the new manner in which the league will decide a victor in the regular season will surely be an exciting one.  

Per the new rule, the overtime session in the regular season will be extended to a seven-minute period, which will be played at 4-on-4, that is until the first whistle after the 4:00 mark. Once three minutes have elapsed and the whistle blows, the teams will play at 3-on-3 for the duration of overtime. As usual, ties at the end of overtime will result in shootout to declare a winner, however this season the AHL is adopting the NHL’s three-round shootout format over the five-round variety the league has used in the past.

The IceHogs will be well prepared for this scenario, as a portion of all their intra-squad scrimmages were played at three men apiece. To the spectators (and probably the participants), the 3-on-3 hockey will either be the most exciting part of a game or the most nerve-wracking, depending on their intestinal fortitude.

The smaller number of players assures that an absurd amount of open ice is available, which will benefit teams with speed. The open space will undoubtedly lead to odd-men rushes, which could lead to more games ending in OT rather than a shootout. Because of this, it is a safe bet that the group who might detest this rule change the most is those wearing the goaltending gear, or the coaches who have to choose between emphasizing offensive or defensive skill with their three skaters.

Putting the Preseason in Perspective

Thursday and Friday offered two preseason games for the IceHogs and left them with two similar 3-1 defeats. While the 0-2 record in exhibition play may be disappointing for fans and players alike, it is important to remember the reason that a team’s preseason schedule is not included in their final record.

A simple glance at the IceHogs’ lineup on Friday, compared to their roster Monday can provide the biggest reason why the pair of losses should be left in the past. 12 of the 21 dressed players for Friday’s matchup with the Admirals were no longer on the Rockford active roster come practice time three days later.

The preseason afforded young prospects like Karill Govotets and Justin Holl a chance to get their feet wet at the AHL level before heading to ECHL-affiliate Indy to start the season, and allowed the IceHogs’ tryout-invitees to show their stuff to Ted Dent and the rest of the coaching staff.

Also the preseason Hogs were devoid of names like Teuvo Teravainen, Klas Dahlbeck, Ryan Hartman, Michael Leighton and newly-acquired T.J. Brennan, all whom figure to log considerable minutes as the regular season starts.

So while the pair of exhibition games may have not resulted in a win for the team, the players involved or the team as a whole are certainly no worse for wear as a result.

A New Era of IceHogs Goaltenders

With Mac Carruth being assigned to Indy and Kent Simpson being shipped out east as part of the Nick Leddy-to-the-Islanders trade on Saturday, the door is open for a pair of newcomers to make their mark in the Rockford crease.

When the Blackhawks signed Scott Darling as a free agent on July 1, the IceHogs figured to be the initial benefactor from the 25-year-old’s acquisition. The Lemont, Ill. native brings with him hefty expectations from the organization and recent statistics to back them up.

In an injury-shortened 2013-14 season, Darling posted a solid 13-6-2 record with the Milwaukee Admirals. What transcends solid and enters into remarkable is the fact that six of his 13 victories came via shutout. In 27 career AHL games, Darling has posted a 1.97 GAA and a .933 SV%.

Darling is a big goaltender who plays a big style. The 6-foot-6, 230-pounder has shown that he is extremely comfortable in his sizable frame. He is positionally sound and is aggressive with his stick, which helps him clear out rebounds and limit second-chance opportunities against him.

Michael Leighton, the other half of the Rockford goaltending tandem, was another offseason addition for the Blackhawks. The 33-year-old from Petrolia, Ontario brings the IceHogs something they have not seen for a long time in a netminder: elite NHL experience. Entering his 14th season as a professional, Leighton has played in just about every scenario imaginable, at just about every level.

His 36 career shutouts is near the top of the AHL record books, and he holds a Stanley Cup Playoff record for most shutouts in a single series when he blanked Montreal three times in four games during the 2010 postseason. The same postseason where he backstopped his team to within two wins of the Stanley Cup before falling to Patrick Kane and the Blackhawks.

However, Leighton still has gas left in the tank, as he comes to Rockford after posting a .933 SV%, 1.74 GAA and six shutouts with Donbass HC in the KHL. He knows what it takes to succeed at the highest level and has the added benefit of hindsight in his pocket.

So are the IceHogs on the verge of a crease controversy in 2014-15? Not according to Leighton.

“It’s always good to have competition, we get along great and it’s going to be fun,” explained the veteran. “I am going to learn from him and hopefully he’s going to learn from me. The goal is to win a championship, it doesn’t matter who is playing.”