Mark McNeill's hat trick spurs IceHogs to eighth-straight victory
Rockford, Ill. - The Rockford IceHogs (10-2-0-1) were able to continue their dominant play to begin the 2014-15 season, primarily because forward Mark McNeill has done the same. The forward accounted for all three tallies in a 3-1 IceHogs victory over the Grand Rapids Griffins (3-6-1-0) on Saturday night in front of a packed BMO Harris Bank Center to help extend Rockford's winning streak to eight games.
McNeill, coming into the game scoring in each of his past three games, delivered arguably his best outing of the campaign, netting a natural hat trick to down the Griffins and give him 10 points (7g-3a) in his last five contests.
The second-year pro used his second and third markers of the game to break open a tight contest that entered the third period at a 1-1 stalemate. Rockford grabbed the lead at 8:39 of the final stanza, with the help of a fortunate bounce. McNeill turned a loose puck in the neutral zone into a two-on-one rush, and ultimately came up with the game-winner when his centering pass caromed off Griffins defenseman Alexey Marchenko's skate and slid inside the far post.
After a couple of key penalty kills preserved the 2-1 lead for the IceHogs, McNeill turned the trick and iced the victory when he lofted a backhand from center ice into an empty net with 41 seconds remaining.
Where the two teams' previous matchup was a defensive chess match, Rockford and Grand Rapids played at a breakneck pace on Saturday, especially in the second period. While no goals were scored in the middle frame, it was not for a lack of opportunities, as both sides had several quality looks at the net. Both Michael Leighton for the IceHogs and Tom McCollum for the Griffins had be sharp between the pipes to keep the game tied heading into the final 20.
Leighton recorded his fifth victory of the year by turning aside 24 of 25 shots, with a few of his best saves coming late in the game.
While Grand Rapids did not score ten seconds into the game like they did their last meeting, the Griffins were once again able to draw first blood early against Rockford. The visitors were able to pin the IceHogs deep in their end after an icing call, which led to the game's first goal courtesy of Landon Ferraro. Parked just off of the goal line, the forward was able to find the net at 3:39, after a no-look pass from behind the net by Andreas Athanasiou lured Leighton off his post.
After falling behind, the IceHogs didn't wait long to create some offense of their own, as they were able to build momentum that soon culminated in McNeill's first goal. A T.J. Brennan point blast handcuffed McCollum, leaving a rebound right at McNeill's feet which he deposited to make it 1-1 at the 10:15 mark of the first.
Aside from being the Rockford's eighth-straight victory, which extended the longest winning streak in their time in the AHL, Saturday's win was a momentous one for IceHogs Head Coach Ted Dent. Dent became the longest-tenured coach in Rockford history with his 241st career game, as well as the winningest coach in the IceHogs' AHL era, picking up victory number 123.
NEXT HOME GAME: Friday, Nov. 14, vs. Milwaukee Admirals. Game time is at 7 p.m. The IceHogs look to avenge their opening night defeat at the hands of the Admirals as the two begin a home-and-home series. The first 2,500 fans will receive an IceHogs cowbell courtesy of BMO Harris Bank.