ROCKFORD, Ill. -- The Rockford IceHogs ended the first half of the 2017-18 campaign on a high note, defeating the Ontario Reign 5-2 last night behind William Pelletier’s first professional hat trick. With the win, Rockford’s record at the halfway point sits at 20-15-1-2, good for a share of third place in the AHL’s Central Division (tied with Chicago Wolves). Last season, the Hogs finished the campaign with just 25 wins.
Riding a large rookie contingent and a fast-paced, open offensive style behind first-year head coach Jeremy Colliton, the IceHogs have run somewhat streaky this season, and the team remains in the thick of the highly-competitive Central Division playoff race.
Here are a few storylines that have defined Rockford’s season thus far:
Perhaps the most important driver of the IceHogs’ success has been the play of their rookies. Twelve different first-year skaters have appeared in a combined total of 331 games for Rockford this season, including two netminders in Collin Delia and Matt Tomkins. Two of Rockford’s rookie skaters rank first and second in active team scoring, while the group as a whole has accounted for 52.1% of the team’s goals (63 of 121) and 38.7% of assists (75 of 194) this season.
Highmore’s High Scores
Of the host of impressive rookies the IceHogs have fielded this year, none has had an immediate impact on the team quite like Matthew Highmore. The Halifax, Nova Scotia native kicked off the season with five points in his first three games, and now leads Rockford’s active roster in goals (17), points (26) and shots on goal (97). Highmore shares the lead among active AHL rookies in goals, holds the lead in shots on goal, ranks tied for seventh in points and has two hat tricks on the year.
Despite the departure of the prolific Tomas Jurco, who held the AHL lead in shots on goal at the time of his recall to the Chicago Blackhawks, the IceHogs continue to set the AHL pace in shots per game with a mark of 34.79. The Hogs have fired 1,322 pucks on net in just 38 games in 2017-18 — 31 more than second-place Grand Rapids, which has played one more game than Rockford.
On the Move
The core of the IceHogs’ roster has remained intact for the most part thus far this season, but a total of 39 moves, both to and from the team’s NHL and ECHL affiliates, have changed the team’s look throughout the first half of the campaign. Each of Rockford’s two opening-night goaltenders, Jeff Glass and J.F. Berube, have seen time with the Blackhawks as two of seven IceHogs to earn a call-up to the NHL this season, with Glass making headlines with his NHL debut at the age of 32 last month. Forwards Vinnie Hinostroza, David Kampf and Tomas Jurco also continue to see time in the Blackhawks lineup, while defensemen Erik Gustafsson and Ville Pokka have added their talents to the Hawks' blueline in 2017-18. Meanwhile, Alex Wideman, Robin Press, Brandon Anselmini, Collin Delia and Matt Tomkins have come from the Indy Fuel to fill the roles left open by Hogs in Chicago, while the Hawks have loaned John Hayden, Cody Franson and Tanner Kero to Rockford’s cause. Of the 20 skaters who suited up for Rockford on Wednesday in Ontario, eight of them were not in the IceHogs’ opening night lineup.
As the IceHogs enter the back half of this year’s campaign, they have their sights set on a Calder Cup playoff berth. In order to reach their goal, here are three keys to the second half of the regular season:
While Rockford has ridden stretches of brilliance to great success this season, extended down periods have seen the team miss out on points against divisional opponents, and in-turn, drop spots in the division standings. Finding a way to get regular results from week-to-week will be crucial to a sustained run up the standings.
The IceHogs’ special teams units have been perhaps the team’s weakest spot to this point of the season—the power play (11.9%) sits 30th in the league, while the penalty kill (78.2%) ranks 27th. However, both units have been stronger as of late, and will need to continue to improve as Rockford looks to close out more games.
With 38 impressive games already under their belt, it might seem like a reach to suggest that the team’s rookies’ development need to improve further. But with the team’s makeup continuing to shift, the role of the team’s young core grows in importance. Also, most junior and collegiate leagues have much shorter schedules than those of professional leagues; how the young players react to a more arduous slate of games could dictate the remainder of the IceHogs’ campaign.
Next Home Game: The IceHogs take on the Bakersfield Condors on Tuesday, Jan. 23 at 7 p.m. at the BMO Harris Bank Center. The contest marks another Fas Fuel Winning Weekday in 2017-18. If the Hogs win, tickets from Tuesday’s game can be redeemed for a ticket of equal or lesser value to the following Fas Fuel Winning Weekdays game on Wednesday, Feb. 7. Fans can also enjoy $2 tacos, select beer, and companion tickets as part of Taco Tuesday. Tickets can be purchased at IceHogs.com, by calling (815) 968-5222 or in-person at the BMO Harris Bank Center Box Office.