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11/11/2014 3:24 PM - Brent Hollerud

After a road-heavy start, the surging Hogs are ready to spend some quality time at the BMO

The last two and a half weeks have been a fantastic time to be a fan of the Rockford IceHogs. Not only have they been able to string along eight wins in a row, breaking their AHL franchise record in the process, they have been able to deliver victories in just about every way possible.

They have had to pull of dramatic comebacks and prevent dramatic comebacks, they have won in overtime and in dominant fashion, they have had their goaltender steal a game or two just as they have won playing fire-wagon hockey.  What is more remarkable than the Hogs finding so many different ways to come out on top this early in the season is the fact they have done so while spending most of their time away from home.

Already in possession of first place in the Midwest Division, the IceHogs will finally get unpack the suitcases and enjoy a November schedule that is laden with home games.  What is even more exciting for the Hogs and their fans is despite their impressive record there is still plenty to improve upon moving forward for the young Rockford club.

BMO-Bound

Relief has finally arrived for what could only be considered a grueling travel schedule to open the season for the IceHogs.  After starting the campaign with eight of 13 games on the road, including lengthy trips out east and to Texas, Rockford will now play eight of their next 12 at the BMO. Even more, the four road contests during that stretch are in nearby Chicago and Milwaukee. The Hogs don’t have to leave the upper-Midwest until late December, when they visit Oklahoma City on Dec. 20-21.

Typically for a hockey team to find long-term success they hope to do the bulk of their winning at home while fielding at least a .500 record on the road. So far this year the IceHogs have done much better than that, winning six of their first eight games away from Rockford, a mark that ties them with Utica for the best road record in the AHL.  For another comparision, the IceHogs only won 11 road games last season, and they are already on pace to eclipse that mark by mid-December.

Not Yet Satisfied


Perhaps the most promising aspect about where the IceHogs are at as a team through five weeks is not how good they have been during their current streak, but how many areas the team can still improve on.  While the players and coaches have been happy with the results of their games, it is clear, when listening to them talk to the media, that they believe that they have not begun to play their best hockey yet-something that could be troubling for the rest of the league.

One area in which the IceHogs have struggled so far has been coming strong out of the gates. All too often it seems like opponents have been able to get the jump on Rockford in the early stages of a period. Through 13 games, the IceHogs have surrendered eight goals in the first five minutes of a period, five of which came in the opening frame.

Luckily for Rockford, they have been able to respond to early adversity, as oddly enough they have an impressive 6-0-0-0 record when giving up the game’s first goal. But the IceHogs know that the law of averages holds that spotting teams early leads will eventually come back to bite them, so they will need to work on tightening up their play in the opening minutes of a period.

Another aspect that could be improved is their net presence in the defensive end.  Both Michael Leighton and Scott Darling have fared extremely well on first-shot opportunities, but the opposition has been able to find scoring on a consistent basis on the rebounds.

Part of the onus of solving this problem can lie on the goalies for better controlling the puck off of their body, limiting the second-chance opportunities. But rebounds are inevitable, and when they do occur the defense and net-front center need to step in and contain the attacking team while clearing loose pucks. 

Iowa was able to climb out of a 4-0 hole and were inches from tying the game last Thursday by out-muscling the IceHogs in tight and scoring some greasy goals. If Rockford can find a way to let their goalies make the first save and lock things down from there, they will be that much tougher to score on.

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.”