Taking a look inward as the season nears the halfway point
As the Rockford IceHogs finish up their home-and-home series with the Milwaukee Admirals this weekend, they will also be wrapping up the first half of their 2014-15 schedule. As people are inclined to do at a juncture like this, especially around the New Year, let us take a moment and reflect, analyze and interpret what the team has displayed through the first 36 games of the grueling American Hockey League season.
Overview: 21-11-3-1, 46 pts., 1st place Midwest Division, 3rd place Western Conference
(2013-14: 16-16-3-1, 36 pts., 4th place Midwest Division, 8th place Western Conference)
In a lot of ways, Rockford’s lofty positioning speaks for itself. The IceHogs have held the division lead and a top-3 spot in the West locked down from Nov. 16 onward, and led the entire AHL for a two week period in late November and early December. Anytime a group is concerned and disappointed with finishing a month 5-6-2-0 (Rockford’s record in December), it is a sign that the team is in a good place.
Through the first three months of the campaign, the IceHogs have set a franchise AHL record by winning eight games in a row. They have proven equally capable of winning a game with their free-wheeling offense as they are locking things down defensively. Rockford has accounted for the league’s second-highest point total on the road.
And the Hogs have done all of this while undergoing constant roster upheaval with reassignments from the Blackhawks. Transactions have been plentiful from the get go, with eight different IceHogs players earning playing time in Chicago thus far. In addition to dealing with all of the call-ups, injuries to key players such as Mark McNeill, Stephen Johns, Garret Ross, Alex Broadhurst and Michael Leighton has also necessitated some personnel shuffling within the organization. Credit is due to Ted Dent, Mark Osiecki and the Rockford coaching staff for keeping the IceHogs moving in the right direction regardless of whomever is available on a given night.
If Rockford can continue to play at the level they have shown for the greater part of the first half, chances are good for not just the IceHogs’ first playoff berth since 2010, but that they can make some noise come the end of April.
Through the first half of the season, the IceHogs have benefitted from scoring by committee. Through 36 games, ten different forwards have scored at least ten points. 11 forwards have posted a multi-point game. Three different players – Joakim Nordstrom, Mark McNeill and Garret Ross – have recorded a hat trick, with the latter already netting two of them. The Rockford offense is not a one-dimensional threat, it has been a multi-faceted attack.
To this point, there has certainly not been a sophomore slump for the IceHogs’ crop of talented second-year forwards. McNeill (11g-11a), Phillip Danault (4g-16a) and the leading goal scorer Ross (12g-9a) have all improved upon their scoring pace set in their rookie seasons, and all sit in the top five in team point scoring.
In addition to the sophomore trio, the IceHogs have seen impressive contributions from a few rookies. Teuvo Teravainen (6g-17a) and Matt Carey (6g-7a) have looked sharp in their first full seasons in Rockford. Teravainen is the most recent player to have his efforts rewarded with a shot with the big club, with his recall to the Blackhawks on Jan. 2.
While the IceHogs scoring output took a little bit of a dip in December after what was a red-hot November, for the most part their forward corps have found the elusive balance of skill and grit. Peter Regin (5g-13) and Dennis Rasmussen (7g-6a) have provided finesse in the top two units while Pierre-Cedric Labrie (3g-4a) and Cody Bass (5a) have brought the needed sandpaper and physicality to combat the opposition’s skill players. Factor in players who can play both styles like Brandon Mashinter (7g-9a) and Ryan Hartman (5g-8a) and the result is an IceHogs team which doesn’t have to rely on the same player to score the big goal or answer the bell with a hit or scrap.
This balance and versatility is invaluable for a team and can often be a great indicator of long-term success.
At a brief glance, one of the first things that may catch the eye of someone comparing the 2013-14 IceHogs defenseman to the current group is the statistics of Adam Clendening. A year ago to the date, Clendening was leading his club with 25 points (4g-21a) in 36 games played. This year after 30 games, the third-year IceHogs rearguard has a modest 10 points (1g-9a). Is this a cause for panic and unrest?
Hardly. This season Rockford doesn’t have to rely as much upon Clendening to be an offensive juggernaut on the blue line, thanks in large part to the offseason additions of rookie Ville Pokka (6g-8a) and 2015 All-Star T.J. Brennan (7g-21a). The newcomers combine with Clendening to create a trio of puck-moving defenders who pose a scoring threat every time they touch the ice. Factor in Kyle Cumiskey (1g-10a), one of the most dynamic skating defensemen in the league, and the always-reliable Klas Dahlbeck (3g-4a) and the offensive depth on the Rockford blue line is unparalleled in the Midwest Division and possibly the entire AHL.
With the steady improvement of 23-year-old Viktor Svedberg and the wily versatility of Zach Miskovic, the IceHogs have impressed through three months of the season. Their defensive core will only improve once Stephen Johns makes his way back into the lineup after missing the last 16 games with an injury.
If the Rockford blue line can continue to chip in on the score sheet and maintain the defensive responsibility that has them fifth-stingiest team in the league allowing 2.28 goals per game, they will continue to be a tough team to play against.
The word “depth” has been tossed around quite a bit here, but the word is nowhere as appropriate for the Blackhawks and IceHogs as it is between the pipes. In Rockford, the tandem of Michael Leighton and Scott Darling have performed better than anticipated, and the expectations were high to begin with. Both netminders have been able to steal a game for their team, and both have displayed the ability to shoulder the load when the other is hurt or with the Blackhawks. Leighton has quietly posted three shutouts in less than 20 appearances, and Darling has ranks in the AHL’s top ten for goals against average (2.17) and save percentage (.929).
When the puck-stopping duo has been separated Mac Carruth has been an exceptional replacement. Spending equal parts of the first half with Rockford and the ECHL’s Indy Fuel, Carruth has been stellar when called upon – posting two wins and a shutout in a pair of divisional starts.
Current Chicago backup Antti Raanta has also appeared in the Rockford crease this season, so regardless of what the Blackhawks organization decides to do with their goalies, there will be more than a capable guy in net for the IceHogs.
Most Improved: Penalty Kill
If the first half of 2014-15 is any indication, IceHogs fans do not have to grimace every time their team takes a penalty. Rockford’s shorthanded unit has gone from the AHL’s basement (ranked dead last a season ago at 72.3%), to having the third-best penalty kill rate in the league (87.4%), including a 89.5% mark on the road. The IceHogs have held their opponents without a power play goal in 25 of their 36 games.
New Year’s Resolution: Power Play
Conversely, Rockford’s efforts with the extra man have left something to be desired. While their numbers are not horrible at 14.7%, it isn’t quite to the level expected with the offensive firepower that the IceHogs possess. What is more puzzling is the pedestrian 9.4% rate Rockford owns on home ice, which puts them in 28th out of 30 teams. With both of the AHL’s top two scoring defensemen from the year prior and a vast repository of skill and size to use in front, one would think the IceHogs could manage better than one goal every seven opportunities with the extra man.