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Analyzing Rockford’s place in Western Conference playoff picture

With the American Hockey League regular season nearing the final homestretch, it is a time where teams are checking the out-of-town scoreboard as frequently as their own. As the calendar shifts from February to March, every single point is aggrandized, every goal for is a little bit sweeter, just as every goal against stings that much more. While there is still just over a month left before the official start of the AHL’s second season, ask any player or coach around the league and you will hear a uniform consensus: it’s officially playoff season.

If the Calder Cup Playoffs indeed started today and not in late April, the Rockford IceHogs would be in good standing. Currently in fourth in the Western Conference with 73 points, the IceHogs would enjoy home-ice advantage in the opening round, a feat they have not achieved since their first year in the AHL in 2008.

At this point with 18 games left on their schedule, Rockford seems poised to make it back into the postseason for the first time since 2010. Their current 33-18-5-2 record is the best mark through 58 games in the franchise’s AHL history. After this weekend’s road trip through Grand Rapids and Chicago, the IceHogs play 10 of their last 16 games at the BMO Harris Bank Center. They have fared well as of late against the other teams in the thick of the playoff race, picking up points recently against Texas, Oklahoma City and Grand Rapids. At short glance it seems hard to envision a scenario where Rockford is not in the top eight when the dust settles.

With that said, forgive the IceHogs and their fans for not penciling in their playoff berth quite yet. They know firsthand how fleeting a spot in the dance can be this time of year. At the 58-game mark of the 2013-14 AHL season, Rockford had a similarly solid record, sitting in sixth place in West with a 29-21-5-3 mark - with a ten-point cushion over the ninth place team. But the IceHogs stumbled across the finish line, going 6-11-0-1 over their last 18 contests, leaving them on the outside looking in. The year before that Rockford became the only team in AHL history to win 42 games and not make the playoffs.

For how hungry this year’s IceHogs team is to make the playoffs and end its four-year postseason drought, they are every bit as wary about how hard it is to do so.

The present landscape of the Western Conference is as tight and competitive as it’s ever been, and it would be to no one’s surprise if it took until the final day of the regular season to decide the final standings. As of Wednesday, seven points separate the top five teams in the conference, from the top-ranked Griffins with 79 points to the fifth place San Antonio Rampage (72 points). The playoff picture gets even more muddled after that, as teams seven through 12 are only distanced by a meager four points.

It can be argued that only three teams (Rochester, Charlotte and Iowa) are effectively out of contention, and little, if anything, as far as top-eight positioning is set in stone. The current up-in-the-air nature of the Western Conference means that an awful lot of meaningful hockey will be played over the next month by a lot of desperate teams. It will be fun to watch unfold, just as it will be incredibly nerve-racking for those with vested interests.

So what do the IceHogs have to do in the final five weeks to ensure that they will finish on the right side of the AHL’s playoff bubble?

Just Win, Baby:
Perhaps the biggest benefit that Rockford’s strong showing through the three-quarter mark brings is that as of Week 23 the IceHogs are entirely in control of their own playoff lives. They have so far found a way to avoid the cloud of uncertainty that surrounds the 7-10 range of the standings, when teams need to pair their own success with outside help in order to keep their footing.

While the AHL’s daily Playoff Primer lists Rockford’s Magic Number (points needed to clinch a postseason berth) at 29, it is important to remember that the Magic Number dwindles both with IceHogs wins and losses by the teams chasing them. Realistically Rockford should be able to crack the top eight if they can even manage a .500 record over their remaining games.

Chasing Grand Rapids: But for a team that has played a sizable chunk of the season atop their conference and division, the IceHogs are determined to do better than slinking into the playoffs. But with the top three seeds reserved for division champions, there is only one way for Rockford to improve on their fourth-place standing - catching the blazing-hot Griffins.

The opportunity is there however, as Rockford and Grand Rapids have three meetings with each other remaining on the schedule, beginning on Saturday in Michigan. Additionally, the IceHogs will have a full three games in hand on their rivals to the east as the puck drops at Van Andel Arena.

With the Griffins in the midst of a 16-game point streak, and with only one regulation loss in their last 22 games, reclaiming the division lead is going to be no easy task for Rockford. But at any rate, the three games left between the top teams in the Midwest will be key, both to settle the division race and as a preview of a possible 1 vs. 4 second round matchup that could happen if both teams hold pace and make it through the conference quarterfinals.

Battle Tested:
Prior to their game this Saturday in Grand Rapids, Rockford will have at least one game in hand on every team in the top eight except the Adirondack Flames. On one hand this can seem like a blessing as it gives the IceHogs more of a chance to catch those ahead of them or to create distance from those chasing them. But a harsh reality of having extra games on the rest of the conference is having to play more in a shorter stretch of time to even everything out.

Saturday marks the end of a stretch beginning on Feb. 28 where Rockford played only four games in a 15-day stretch, while kicking off a new 15-day span where they will play eight times. After this weekend’s road swing, the IceHogs will be tasked with playing three or four games a week for the remainder of the season.

The teams left for Rockford to play will only add to the difficulty of the regular season’s final month. Aside from the three games remaining with the Griffins and a trip to Utica to take on the third place Comets, the IceHogs have a host of games against teams fighting tooth-and-nail for their playoff lives. Rockford squares off with Adirondack (three times), Texas, Toronto and Lake Erie, all who find themselves precariously on or behind the bubble.

There are also a pair of games left between the IceHogs and the Chicago Wolves to decide who wins the Illinois Lottery Cup. While the Wolves would obviously like to keep the Lottery Cup from being awarded to Rockford (which it will with one IceHogs victory), they currently have a bigger motivation for winning. Currently in 10th place, Chicago is in danger of missing the playoffs for the second time in three years.

Playing a heavier schedule against a host of potential playoff teams is inarguably a tough order for any squad. But it is a challenge that the IceHogs can glean a lot from if they can find a way to stay near the top of the conference.

The best preparation for the AHL postseason is to play a playoff-style schedule down the stretch. That is exactly what lies in front of the IceHogs in the next several weeks.

12 teams. 19 points of separation. Battling for eight spots.

Welcome to the wild West.