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 Kirill 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 head coach 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.”