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.”