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Breaking down the Conference Quarterfinals heading into Game 1

In sports, when a team wins a title they earn the right of having the distinction of being the league champions until one of two things happen: they don’t qualify for the postseason or they are eliminated from the playoffs.

The Rockford IceHogs have the opportunity to end the reign of the American Hockey League’s current champions.

Rockford makes its long-awaited return to the Calder Cup Playoffs on Friday as they open up the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Texas Stars, the team that was the last one standing a year prior.

While it may initially seem a daunting task to down the defending champions in the first round, the IceHogs enter the best-of-five series as the higher seed after logging their most successful campaign in their eight-year AHL history. Finishing fourth in the Western Conference with a 46-23-5-2 mark, Rockford set franchise AHL records in wins, points (99), road wins (22) and winning percentage (.651). The IceHogs were a win away from clinching their first-ever AHL Midwest Division title, and were in contention for the top spot in the conference up until the final weekend of the regular season. 2014-15 has been a historic year for Rockford, regardless of what happens in the postseason.

With that being said, the IceHogs are a team starving for playoff success. Rockford is making its first return to the Calder Cup Playoffs since 2010, and is looking for its first playoff win since 2008. The franchise has suffered opening-round sweeps in each of its last two trips to the postseason, and has finished ninth in the west in agonizing fashion each of the past two seasons.

Sporting a young, talented roster flanked by veteran experience, the IceHogs are a team primed to take the next step and contend for the Calder Cup. The first obstacle on that journey comes against a club that doesn’t have to trace very far back to find postseason prosperity.

One year ago the Texas Stars came into the AHL playoffs as the West’s top seed, and lived up to the billing - running through Oklahoma City, Grand Rapids and Toronto to reach the Calder Cup Finals against St. John’s. After splitting Games 1 and 2 in the Lone Star State against the IceCaps, the Stars rattled off three-straight overtime wins on the road to capture their first championship since joining the league in 2009-2010.

With many of the pieces in place from last spring’s title-winning roster, Texas skated to a 40-22-13-1 record and a second-place finish in the West Division, leaving them with the fifth seed in the conference. The Stars were dangerously close to the playoff bubble at the season’s three-quarter mark, but used a 15-4-1-0 run down the stretch to comfortably clinch their third-straight Calder Cup Playoff berth.

The IceHogs and Stars do share a bit of postseason history, as Rockford’s last foray into the playoffs came to an abrupt end at the hands of Texas. The Stars turned a four-game sweep of the IceHogs in the 2010 West Division Semifinals, en route to falling in six games to the Hershey Bears in the Calder Cup Finals.

Even though none of the current IceHogs players were around during that 2010 series, and Head Coach Ted Dent was an assistant under Bill Peters at the time, as a franchise Rockford is ready to dish out some revenge to their foes down south.

2014-15 Regular Season Series:

Texas may have enjoyed the recent playoff success over the IceHogs, but Rockford has had the upper hand over the Dallas Stars affiliate this season. The IceHogs took all four games of the regular season series, bookending a weekend sweep in Cedar Park with a pair of victories at the BMO Harris Bank Center. Rockford has now won eight straight against Texas, with their last loss to the Stars coming on Jan. 21, 2013 in the Forest City.

The win-loss record may be lopsided in favor of the IceHogs, but each game between Rockford and Texas this season has been highly competitive. Three of the four were decided by one goal, and the fourth was blown open by a third period rally by the IceHogs - who scored four times in the final 20 minutes to win 6-3 at Cedar Park Center on Feb. 28.

Abbott_Spencer1415TRb.jpgSpencer Abbott leads the IceHogs in point scoring after joining the team at the trade deadline (Photo: Todd Reicher)


Rockford- While what has set this year’s IceHogs squad apart from years past has been their ability to prevent goals, Rockford has been equally capable of outgunning their opponents this season. The IceHogs finished the regular season the ninth-best scoring team in the league, potting 2.92 goals per game. Goal scoring was at its most potent down the stretch, as Rockford torched its opponents to the tune of 3.73 goals per game in the 22 games since Feb. 27.

Perhaps the biggest reason for the IceHogs offensive binge in the late stages of the season was the trade deadline acquisition of right wing Spencer Abbott. Picked up from the Toronto Maple Leafs for defenseman T.J. Brennan on Feb. 26, Abbott was a boon to Rockford’s scoring efforts from the second he arrived in the Forest City. The Hamilton, Ontario native finished atop the IceHogs lineup in scoring with 45 points (19g-45), including an astounding 12 goals and nine assists in only 19 games with Rockford.

Abbott has made up a versatile forward unit with center Peter Regin (41 points) and left wing Brandon Mashinter (32 points), who bring a combination of size, speed and skill up front. Regin paced the IceHogs in the regular season with 31 assists, while Mashinter was a weapon on special teams, leading Rockford with six power play goals.

The IceHogs boast another potent trio in second-year forwards Mark McNeill (44 points) Garret Ross (43 points) and Phillip Danault (38 points), who sit in second, third and fifth place respectively in team scoring. The three have also combined for 18 points (9g-9a) in Rockford’s four wins over Texas.

After missing the majority of the season with an arm injury, center Alex Broadhurst (14 points) has been on the upswing as of late. Dennis Rasmussen (27 points), Ryan Hartman (37 points) and Pierre-Cedric Labrie can all provide depth scoring as well as an element of physicality to the IceHogs attack. Labrie missed 10 of Rockford’s last 11 games with a lower body ailment, but is hoping to be back to speed for Game 1.

Texas- The IceHogs will need their forwards to be clicking to keep up with the Stars, the AHL’s third-highest scoring team (3.18 goals per game). Texas’ forward corps wields four 20-goal scorers, five 40-point scorers and nine 20-point scorers.

The Stars’ multi-faceted offense in led by veteran center Travis Morin (63 points), the AHL’s scoring champion, regular season MVP and postseason MVP a year ago. Joining Morin in the Texas attack are Brendan Ranford (51 points), Justin Dowling (50 points) and Scott Glennie (39 points), each of which played a key role in their championship run last year.

Texas has also benefitted from the return of center Greg Rallo, whose 27 goals is tops on his team and tied for tenth-most in the entire AHL. Rallo played for the Stars from 2009-2011 before moving across the state for a three-year stint with San Antonio. The Gurnee, Ill. native leads the 2014-15 Texas club with 11 power play goals.

Rookie winger Derek Hulak, with the Stars on an ATO during last year’s playoff run, has thrived in his first full AHL season, finishing fifth in team scoring with 44 points (21g-23a). Brett Ritchie (21 points), Curtis McKenzie (21 points) and Matej Stransky (19 points) all can help out on both sides of the puck.


Captain Maxime Fortunus leads an experienced Texas defense (Photo: Christina Shapiro)


Rockford- The part of the IceHogs roster that saw the most radical change from the start of the year to now, Rockford’s blue line is young but talented. While it is tough to replace the steadying effect and AHL experience that Adam Clendening, T.J. Brennan, Klas Dahlbeck (traded) and Kyle Cumiskey (on recall to Chicago) each provided, rookies Stephen Johns (21 points) and Ville Pokka (30 points) have played well beyond their age.

Johns brings NHL-caliber size and strength to Rockford’s back end, and finished the regular season tied for the AHL lead with a +30 rating. Pokka, only 20-years-old, was tied for fourth among league rookie defensemen with his eight goals and 22 assists.

Inexperience could be an issue in the bright lights of the postseason however, as out of the seven IceHogs defensemen that figure to log considerable minutes this spring, only Zach Miskovic (8 points) and Keith Seabrook (5 points) have played in the Calder Cup Playoffs before. Four of Rockford’s defensemen - Seabrook, Kirill Gotovets, Dillon Fournier and Justin Holl - have split their seasons in the AHL and ECHL.

Texas- Where the IceHogs’ defensive core is for the most part green and unproven, the Stars’ blue line contingent is one of the most established groups in the league. Texas brings seven defensemen with at least three years of AHL experience to the table.

Stars captain Maxime Fortunus (34 points) has played 10 years in the league and has 114 Calder Cup Playoff games in his back pocket. Derek Meech (35 points) has been in 59 playoff games over his eight year AHL career. Cameron Gaunce (14 points), Matt Mangene (17 points) and Scott Valentine (10 points) have six, four and four years of AHL mettle to their name respectively.

The Stars like to play an up-tempo, transition-heavy style of play, and rely on their defensemen to get their offense started. Perhaps their biggest weapon on the blue line for their free-wheeling attack is rookie Julius Honka (31 points). Dallas’ first round draft pick (14th overall) this past summer, Honka uses his impressive skating skills to both create offense and prevent it in his own end.

Leighton_Michael1415TRq.jpgMichael Leighton will carry the water in net for Rockford (Photo: Todd Reicher)


The single biggest difference between this year’s record-breaking IceHogs team and the underachieving squads of the last few years has been in net. Rockford gave up a total of 178 goals this season, shattering their all-time franchise record and eclipsing their previous AHL low mark by a baffling 42 goals.

Goaltenders Scott Darling, Michael Leighton and Antti Raanta rewrote the IceHogs record book this season and now sit one-two-three at the top of the team’s AHL single-season list for both save percentage and goals against average.

Darling set a new all-time franchise record with his .927 save percentage during his 26 games played, while he (2.20) and Leighton (2.26) both broke the all-time franchise mark in goals against average. Leighton’s five shutouts this year is the new AHL franchise standard, as he helped the IceHogs blank their opponents a total of 10 times this year.

With Darling and Raanta up with the Blackhawks, Rockford will hitch its wagon to Leighton for the playoff run. The 33-year-old Leighton has played 19 career AHL playoff games and backstopped the Philadelphia Flyers to within two wins of the Stanley Cup in 2010, so big-game pressure should not be an issue.

Backup duties for the IceHogs fall to Mac Carruth, who was reassigned from the ECHL affiliate Indy Fuel on April 12. Carruth picked up two wins and a shutout during three games with Rockford this season, posting a 1.69 goals against average and a .925 save percentage.

Texas- Head Coach Derek Laxdal’s most difficult decision coming into the opening round series is who to give the nod in net. The Stars have a pair of capable goaltenders in Jussi Rynnas and Jack Campbell who have each taken the reigns at time this season, and are both healthy and hungry for playoff minutes.

On paper the 27-year-old Rynnas has the slight edge, whose 22-6-8 record, 2.53 goals against average and .920 save percentage are all better than Campbell’s 14-14-5 mark, 3.03 goals against average and .907 save percentage. But Rynnas missed much of the last month of the season with an injury, and Campbell stepped in and won 11 of his last 14 starts dating back to March 15.

Campbell appeared in four games last season during Texas’ run to the Calder Cup, losing the starting job to Christopher Nilstorp, while Rynnas has yet to play an AHL playoff game. It would not be a surprise if both goaltenders saw the ice against Rockford in the first round, as one would expect Laxdal to be looking for one or the other to step up and take the starting job.

Campbell_Shapiro.pngStars goaltender Jack Campbell has an 11-3-0 record since March 15 (Photo: Christina Shapiro)


Rockford- Special Teams. Five-on-five play tightens up considerably once the playoffs begin, making special teams situations all the more critical. The IceHogs are about to take on a Texas squad who sits in the top-four in league power play (20.0%, 3rd) and penalty kill (86.9%, 4th). While their own power play (17.0%, T-15th) and penalty kill (86.0%, 8th) numbers lie more in the middle of the AHL table, strong special teams play has been an indicator of success for the IceHogs.

Rockford finished the season with a sterling 30-6-1-0 record in games where they recorded a power play goal, including wins in nine of its last 10 games with a power play tally. The IceHogs have won the special teams battle over the Stars in the regular season, scoring six goals on 16 opportunities (37.5%) while yielding only two power play goals in 16 chances against (87.5%). If Rockford can continue to capitalize on Texas penalties while not giving up any easy goals on the penalty kill, they will be in great shape to control the series.

Texas- Experience. The Stars return 16 players from their Calder Cup-winning roster a year ago, including four of their top five point producers. On the other hand, Rockford’s 30-man postseason roster contains 23 players who have never played an AHL playoff game before. Further emphasizing the disparity between the two clubs, Texas defensemen Maxime Fortunus and Derek Meech have played in a combined 173 Calder Cup Playoff games. The entirety of the IceHogs roster has played only 162.

The Stars have been through the postseason grind; they remember what it takes to win close games, how to bounce back from a loss and ultimately they have already proven themselves capable of finishing on top.

Where emotions and big-game jitters may be a factor for a young team like the IceHogs in the early stages of the series, Texas should be dialed in from the get-go. And with Games 1 and 2 taking place in Cedar Park, the Stars could use a case of stage fright from the IceHogs to grab a commanding series lead.

The IceHogs Will Win If… Michael Leighton and the Rockford defense can keep Texas’ counterpunch at bay. The Stars - with their host of offensive weapons - thrive in a wide-open, back-and-forth type of game. They score a lot of goals, but usually at the cost of giving up quite a few themselves.

The IceHogs will have their chances to score, and if they can get the steady goaltending from Leighton they got in the regular season they should be able to outlast Texas.

The Stars Will Win If… A goalie gets hot and helps Texas defend home ice. Johns, Pokka and the rest of Rockford’s young defense contingent is going to have their hands full trying to contain the likes of Morin, Rallo, Ranford and Dowling, which might make a standout performance by a Stars goaltender a tough obstacle to overcome for the IceHogs.

If Rynnas or Campbell can string a couple of strong performances together and Texas can win one or both of the first two games at home, it would put the pressure on Rockford to play three great games at the BMO Harris Bank Center to survive. A 2-0 hole would be devastating for a team trying to cut their teeth in the playoffs like the IceHogs.