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Leighton shines again as Rockford takes game one of Lottery Cup doubleheader

Rosemont, Ill. - After ending up on the wrong side in their last two forays beyond regulation time, the Rockford IceHogs (23-12-4-2) finally played the role of the walk-off winner as they defeated the Chicago Wolves (19-15-4-1) 3-2 in a shootout in front of a crowd of 15,225 at Allstate Arena. The surging IceHogs now have grabbed points in six of their last seven games.

The sharpshooting T.J. Brennan provided the only goal in the breakaway competition, and goaltender Michael Leighton turned in yet another strong performance, stopping all three Wolves shooters to grab the second point for the IceHogs. The Rockford goaltender stopped 44 shots en route to helping his team earn their fifth victory over their Illinois Lottery Cup rivals this season, and their third in four tries on the road.

After Leighton shut the door on Chicago's two most prolific goal scorers in Ty Rattie and Shane Harper, Brennan notched the shootout-winner when he wired a snap shot just inside the left post, beating Wolves netminder Jordan Binnington (19 saves). Chicago's last hope in Philip McRae was stymied by the left pad of Leighton, which clinched the win for a Rockford team that was under siege for most of the night.

The opportunistic IceHogs were able to push the game past regulation despite being outshot 40-18 through three periods. Not far removed from a stretch where they struggled to score more than one goal while compiling shot totals in the 40's and 50's, Rockford was able to make the most of what a stingy Chicago defense gave them on Saturday.

While the IceHogs were held to only five shots in each of the first two periods, in each case they were able to make one of them count, taking a 2-1 lead into the third period. Rockford's 10 shots through 40 minutes and 18 through regulation time were both season lows.

Following three previous meetings at Allstate Arena had come and gone without either team finding a first period goal, the IceHogs and Wolves started Saturday by trading goals in the game's first eight minutes.

Magnus Paajarvi, one of Chicago's newest additions, drew first blood at 6:14 with an impressive display of hand-eye coordination. Paajarvi, playing in his seventh game with the Wolves after being reassigned from the St. Louis Blues, batted down a Stephen Johns clearing attempt and quickly threw a wrist shot through Leighton's five-hole.

The Chicago lead was short-lived, as the IceHogs got a goal of their own only 1:49 later when Ryan Hartman cashed in on a Wolves penalty. After leading the breakout from behind his goal line, Adam Clendening threw the Chicago defenders out of sync with a drop pass to Peter Regin, who quickly forwarded the puck to a streaking Hartman. The rookie blew past the flatfooted defense and froze Binnington with a quick move before depositing his seventh of the season.

Rockford was able to find the net again on their next official shot on goal, registered over 16 minutes later. Mark McNeill grabbed his 12th goal of the season, and fourth in four games against Chicago, burying a one-timer at 4:27 of the second period. After winning a puck battle in the corner, linemate Phillip Danault found a waiting McNeill in the high slot, who used the traffic in front to beat Binnington to the blocker side. Garret Ross picked up the secondary assist.

The lone goal in the third period belonged to the Wolves' Jeremy Welsh, who cleaned up a rebound on the power play to even the score at two with under 10 minutes remaining on the clock.

Chicago had plenty of other chances in the third period, outshooting the IceHogs 16-8 in the final frame. But once again it was Leighton who stood equal to the task, making several key stops to prevent the Wolves from taking the lead again.

For Leighton, it was the third-consecutive start - and fourth in his last five - that extended past regulation time. Over the same stretch, the Petrolia, Ontario native shows a 3-0-1-1 record, with an astonishing .963 save percentage.

The game had an unmistakable physical tone to it, spurred both by the two teams' deep rivalry and Chicago's recent acquisition of forward Adam Burish. Burish, along with fellow former Chicago Blackhawk Ben Eager, were the catalysts of a scrum late in the first period that resulted in 52 minutes in penalties.

With the win, Rockford takes a commanding lead in the race for the Illinois Lottery Cup, holding a seven-point edge over their intrastate rivals with five games to play. The rivals will have Sunday off before they reunite for the home-and-home finale in Rockford on Monday afternoon.

Next Home Game: Monday, Jan. 19 vs. Chicago Wolves. Puck drops at 1 p.m. The IceHogs host the Wolves for their annual Martin Luther King Day game at the BMO Harris Bank Center. The first 1,000 kids under age 14 through the gates to the Illinois Lottery Cup match will leave with a free IceHogs drawstring bag, courtesy of Pepsi. Fans are also encouraged to stick around after the game to take the ice with their favorite players in the first “Skate With The Hogs” of the new year.