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Rookies on Display in IceHogs' Opening Weekend

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Six Rockford rookies made their AHL regular season debuts last weekend in two games against the San Jose Barracuda to start the 2023-24 campaign. Nolan Allan, Drew Commesso, Ethan Del Mastro, Jalen Luypen, Ryder Rolston, and Antti Saarela all began their North American pro hockey careers on Friday in San Jose.

Over the course of the 7-2 win for the IceHogs on Friday, Commesso proved steady in net with 34 saves on 36 San Jose shots, including 18 saves on 18 Barracuda shots in the second period alone. "I felt pretty good," said Commesso simply. "It was great to finally play a regular season game. It was really nice that I got a lot of action in the preseason and could kind of ramp up. I felt comfortable as soon as I got in there."

With Rockford leading 5-1 in the third period, Luypen stole the puck behind the San Jose net and fed Rolston in front of the net to mark the first points for both rookies. Luypen also earned an assist on Bryce Kindopp's shorthanded empty-netter later in the third.

"Just to get a couple of points definitely makes it easier on the stick a little bit, makes me feel happier for sure,” said Luypen. “It's fun playing with those two (Saarela and Rolston) especially when you're playing with three guys who haven't played in the league yet, but I think we handled those situations that we were thrown into pretty well.”

“Playing with those guys (Luypen and Saarela) out in Chicago during rookie camp a month ago and then in the preseason quite a bit, and doing that again here in Rockford is great,” added Rolston. “Getting to know the kind of players those guys are makes things easier on the ice, and getting that first win under your belt helps a lot.”

Rolston finished the season opener with three shots and a goal on Luypen’s assist in the third period. The Notre Dame alumni also noted the importance of time together as a team during their first road trip. “It was a good weekend to have, a five-day roadtrip to get closer with the guys, taking a lot away from the games this weekend personally and as a team.”

Saarela, the 22 year-old Fin, said he had fun playing in his first pro games and absorbed several lessons on both the winning and losing sides of the two-game weekend in San Jose.

“It’s a good experience to be on both sides of winning and losing big. Learning a lot of different situations this past week, especially in the second game where we should be playing better as a team,” said Saarela. “It’s also a lot faster (than preseason games) but there’s still a long way to go.”

The Saarela name is not new to the IceHogs. His older brother, Aleksi,, played with Rockford in 5 games in the 2019-2020 season and played in the NHL with the Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers for a couple of playoff appearances. Aleksi currently plays in Switzerland with the SCL Tigers.

Del Mastro has quite the resume entering his first year in the AHL. He is a three-time World Junior Hockey champion, where he was teammates on Team Canada with Blackhawks Connor Bedard and Kevin Korchinski, as well as Blackhawks prospects Allan and Colton Dach in 2023.

"It's been a long time coming. It's been a lot of camp days with the Blackhawks and then out here, a lot of days just practicing, so it's exciting to get into games where it's the real thing,” said Del Mastro.

Over the weekend in San Jose, Del Mastro played on a pairing with Allan and is excited for what the next chapter has in store for both of them. "It's exciting, we've been together for a lot of years and playing on the same teams, but never paired together,” said Del Mastro. “I think it's going to be good, we have similar styles and play hard defensively."

“Two rookie defensemen playing together, some coaches might not like that,” Allan laughed. “But you know, me and Del are very familiar with each others’ games. We’ve been around each other for a couple years now and played together a couple times.” Along with previously playing together at international tournaments and appearing at Blackhawks’ camps together, the pair spends additional time together off the ice. “Yeah we live together too,” smiled Allan. “So we’re connected wherever we go.”

The IceHogs have two more rookies that are still yet to make their AHL debut: Marcel Marcel, and Ryan Gagnier. Marcel was a fifth-round selection by Chicago in the 2023 NHL Entry Draft and signed an AHL contract prior to the start of the 2023-24 season. The Czech forward is currently recovering from a wrist injury.

Gagnier was signed to an AHL contract this summer and is waiting to make his professional debut after being voted one of the OHL’s best defensive forwards with the Oshawa Generals last season.

Rockford’s youth makes the IceHogs the second-youngest team in the AHL according to Elite Prospects. The success of the group remains to be seen throughout the remainder of the 2023-24 season, but the ceiling is high for Rockford’s youth.

The IceHogs open the 2023-24 home schedule on Saturday, Oct. 21 against the Chicago Wolves at 7 p.m. at the BMO Center.