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Breaking down the potential opening-round opponents for the IceHogs

Coming into the 2014-15 season a pair of ugly streaks loomed over the Rockford IceHogs. The franchise began the year at four seasons and counting without an appearance in the Calder Cup Playoffs. One would have to trace back an additional two years find the last time the IceHogs won a postseason game.

Needless to say, the Rockford hockey community is ready for some Spring success.

One monkey has already been dispatched from the IceHogs’ collective backs with Rockford en route to its first playoff berth since the 2009-10 season. Now, in the waning moments of the regular season the IceHogs find themselves in a great position to ending their drought of postseason success as well.

After picking up three wins out of their four-game slate last week, Rockford clinched a top-four finish in the Western Conference which guarantees home ice-advantage in the Conference Quarterfinals. As the high-seed, the IceHogs would also - in theory and on paper - receive a favorable matchup in the first round, which is scheduled to begin next week.

Hopefully this will be enough to put to rest Rockford’s recent playoff futility, which has seen them get swept out of the first round in their last two appearances - courtesy of the Texas Stars in 2010 and the Milwaukee Admirals in 2009.

The last time the IceHogs won a playoff series came back in 2008, when they ousted the Houston Aeros in five games in the West Division Semifinals. Their last Calder Cup Playoff victory came a few weeks later in Game 5 of the West Division Finals, a 5-1 Rockford victory at Allstate Arena over the Chicago Wolves on May 9, 2008 which gave them a 3-2 series lead. It was a lead that the IceHogs were unable to hold, as they fell to a Chicago team that went on to win the Calder Cup.

With their next win - and they have three more chances to get one - this year’s Rockford club will break the high-mark the 2007-08 IceHogs set for victories in a season. Heading into the final week of the regular season, the 2014-15 Hogs still have a shot at their first AHL Midwest Division title (sitting one point behind Grand Rapids), and could very well leapfrog the San Antonio Rampage for the West’s second seed.

Rockford is in the drivers’ seat for playoff success, but who will be the first obstacle on the road to the Calder Cup? With the Western Conference picture beginning to crystallize, we’ll take a look at a few of the potential first-round foes for the IceHogs, and how the resulting five-game series may pan out.

(Click here to view's Playoff Primer)

Texas Stars (Currently 5th in West, 88 points)

Remaining Games: at SA, at SA, vs. SA

2014-15 Tale of the Tape: Rockford took all four games in the season series against the Stars, bookmarking a two-game road sweep in late February with a pair of wins at the BMO in November and March. Despite the lopsided record, the IceHogs and Stars have played each other extremely tight. Three of the four games were decided by one goal, and the IceHogs used a 4-goal third period to earn a 6-3 win in the other.

How It Could Happen: If the playoffs started today, Rockford and Texas would be the 4-5 pairing in the West. The IceHogs are locked into the fourth seed unless they can catch Grand Rapids at the top of the Midwest. Texas just needs to hold on to their two-point edge on sixth-place Oklahoma City, but has a brutally tough final week - with three games against the West Division-leading San Antonio Rampage.

Good News: With the regular season sweep, the IceHogs have obviously shown that they can find success against Texas this season. The Stars’ style of play presents a good match-up for the IceHogs’ free-wheeling offense. Texas likes to open up the neutral zone and play a quick transition-heavy game, something that fits Rockford’s skill and speed up front to a tee.

Bad News: The defending Calder Cup Champions are never a good first-round draw. Texas won it all last season and they are returning to the playoffs with many of the same pieces in place. Sixteen players remain with the Stars from their postseason roster a year ago, including four of their top five playoff point-producers. Texas is deep and they have experience making deep runs, both which pose a problem to a team light on postseason pedigree like the IceHogs.

Oklahoma City Barons (Currently 6th in West, 86 points)

Remaining Games: vs. HAM, vs. IA, vs. IA

2014-15 Tale of the Tape: Location was critical in the regular season series, as each of the four games between the IceHogs and Barons fell in favor of the home squad. Oklahoma City won a pair at the Cox Convention Center just prior to the Christmas Break, and Rockford rebounded with 3-1 and 5-1 home victories on Feb. 14 and March 6 respectively.

How It Could Happen: If the IceHogs stand pat in fourth place and the Barons can overcome the two-point gap between them and Texas, Rockford would open up the playoffs with two games in Oklahoma. But where the Stars have to fight through a tripleheader with second-place San Antonio this week, the Barons have a much easier schedule. Oklahoma City plays three games against non-playoff teams this week, including a pair at home against last-place Iowa. The Barons also hold the primary tie-breaker over Texas, so any pair of Oklahoma City wins and Stars losses will be enough to swap the two teams in the standings.

Good News: If recent meetings are any indication, the IceHogs should feel confident heading into a series with the Barons. They had full control of the previous two games at the BMO, and used their scoring depth to outgun Oklahoma City. If Rockford’s sticks can keep clicking, and they can forage a win from the opening two games down south, they will be in great shape upon their return to the Forest City. The Barons have also stumbled into the final week of the season, going 3-9-2-0 over the last month.

Bad News:
After faltering down the stretch, Oklahoma City could be well overdue for a resurgence. They have also received a shot in the arm from a slew of reassignments from the Edmonton Oilers. Since the NHL regular season closed last weekend, the Barons have welcomed back three of their most reliable defensemen in Brandon Davidson, David Musil and Martin Marincin, as well as left wing Curtis Hamilton. On the back end, their sturdy goaltending tandem of Richard Bachman and Laurent Brossoit has been reunited, and both of them have the capability to take over a game or a series.

Chicago Wolves (Currently 7th in West, 85 points)

Remaining Games: at RFD, vs. MIL, vs. TOR

2014-15 Tale of the Tape: The IceHogs snatched away the Illinois Lottery Cup from their crosstown rivals this season, winning seven of the first 11 games against the Wolves. Rockford has been comfortable both home and on the road against Chicago, winning a franchise-high four games in Rosemont. The two teams round out their regular season slate on Friday at the BMO, in a possible opening-round preview.

How It Could Happen
: If Rockford can catch Grand Rapids and move into the third seed in the West, and Chicago can move from their current seventh-place position to the sixth spot, the IceHogs and Wolves would be first-round opponents. Chicago only sits one point behind the Barons, and plays their final two games on home ice.

Good News: There would be no secrets to hide in a potential Rockford-Chicago series. The IceHogs know the Wolves, their personnel and their systems frontwards and backwards and should be well suited to craft a game plan accordingly. Rockford would also enjoy true home-ice advantage against the Chicago, with Games 1, 2 and 5 taking place at the BMO instead of having to open on the road as they would against any other opponent. Additionally, the IceHogs - and their fans - have had no trouble taking over the Allstate Arena this season.

Bad News: The Wolves are just as comfortable playing against the IceHogs. They have also been in playoff mode for much of the past month, needing a strong finish to fight their way back into the top eight. Chicago has won 10 of their last 12 games since March 21, and are one of the most dangerous teams in the conference at the moment. Whereas Rockford has been able to cruise into the playoffs, the Wolves have been playing with a must-win mentality for weeks, something that will be easy to parlay into postseason success.

Toronto Marlies (Currently 8th in West, 81 points)

Remaining Games:
at IA, at MIL, at RFD, at CHI

2014-15 Tale of the Tape: Toronto won the only previous meeting 1-0 in a shootout at Ricoh Coliseum, but that was all the way back on Oct. 19. The IceHogs will wrap up their regular season schedule Saturday at the BMO against the Marlies.

How It Could Happen: While it is the most unlikely of their playoff scenarios, the IceHogs could still close the two-point gap between them and San Antonio for the West’s second seed. Likewise it is still possible for the eigth-place Marlies to catch the Wolves, who sit four points ahead of them. For this to happen, Toronto would have to win at least three of their four games while Chicago would have to lose out.

Good News: With an overall record of 8-3-0-1 so far, Rockford has dominated the North Division this year. The playoffs is when playing in the ultra-competitive Midwest (the only division in the AHL where all five teams will finish over .500) will pay dividends for the IceHogs. Rockford also would have the benefit of having their regular-season finale to feel out their first round opponent, when the stakes aren’t quite so high yet.

Bad News: There is an unfamiliarity factor in play with the Marlies that is absent with other potential first-round opponents. Rockford could also fall into danger having to start the series with two games in Toronto, against a team that had to play their last four games on the road. Just like the Wolves, if the Marlies make the playoffs it is because they survived a six-team battle for the last couple of spots in the West. Toronto has played with desperation for a couple of months now, which could make them a dicey opening-round draw.