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Taking one final look at the IceHogs/Griffins series

The hype and anticipation was palpable in the days leading up to the Western Conference Semifinal series between the Rockford IceHogs and Grand Rapids Griffins. It was a high-profile, high-stakes matchup between the best two teams in the AHL’s Midwest Division and two teams that share a blossoming regional rivalry as well. It pitted a young and hungry IceHogs squad excited to find their way into the postseason against a Griffins squad hungry to return to the league’s pinnacle two years removed from winning it all in 2013.

It was a matchup of two teams that dominated the league in the late months of the regular season, and two teams that found a rhythm in the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs as well. Each team entered the second round on a three-game winning streak (albeit Grand Rapids’ was in come-from-behind fashion).

Predictions called for a long, competitive and intensity-fueled battle between the IceHogs and Griffins - forecasts that all came to fruition except the first one. Unfortunately, Rockford’s long-awaited return to the Calder Cup Playoffs hit the skids in the second round, as the IceHogs’ first playoff appearance since 2010 ended with a five-game defeat to Grand Rapids.

While the end result may have been lopsided toward the second-seeded Griffins’ favor the play on the ice was much more of a toss-up. Out of the four Grand Rapids victories, two required an empty net cushion to hang on and one required overtime - although not much of it.

The IceHogs ultimately fell into an early hole at Van Andel Arena against a team that thrives on home ice, and did not have the necessary firepower to find their way out of it. Rockford was an overtime goal in Game 4 away from tying the series at two-games apiece, but suffered a tough bounce leading to a tougher loss - which put them on the edge of elimination.

The five-game series was extremely fast, brutally physical and played with an incredibly high level of skill, one that the IceHogs should find no shame in coming up short in. Despite entering the Calder Cup Playoffs with one of the youngest and inexperienced rosters in the AHL, Rockford proved that it belonged, trucking through the defending champion Texas Stars before meeting up with the buzz saw that was Teemu Pulkkinen and Company.

The future is bright for the Rockford IceHogs, and if they can build on their first taste of playoff success this decade, they will get another generous portion come next spring.

Game 1 - Wednesday, May 6 - IceHogs 3 at Griffins 5 (Van Andel Arena):

If the second-round series was billed from the start as one between two teams that can open it up offensively if needed to - Game 1 from Grand Rapids was just as advertised. After a tight first period, things exploded in the latter 40 minutes with scoring aplenty and momentum changing hands multiple times.

As for the difference-maker, Grand Rapids turned to their resident offensive juggernaut Teemu Pulkkinen - who opened what would be a dominant series with a hat trick. A pair of late second-period goals from the forward helped the Griffins open a 3-1 lead, and his third served as the late game-winner after the IceHogs staged a third-period comeback.

Coming off of his series-clinching goal to end the Western Conference Quarterfinals, IceHogs defenseman Stephen Johns led his team on the comeback trail, posting a goal and an assist in short order to tie the game at three midway through the third period before Pulkkinen netted the game-winner.

Game 2 - Friday, May 8 - IceHogs 1 at Griffins 5 (Van Andel Arena):

Grand Rapids continued to roll on home ice, scoring five unanswered goals en route to picking up their fifth-straight win at Van Andel Arena to begin the 2015 Calder Cup Playoffs.

Rockford got out to a strong start in Game 2, but couldn’t capitalize on their momentum, entering the first intermission at a 1-1 stalemate. The Griffins grabbed the lead in the second and took over the game in the third, adding three over the final period (including another two from Pulkkinen) to seize a 2-0 lead in the series.

The late stages of the game were defined by its chippiness, with Rockford setting a single-game playoff record by logging 64 penalty minutes before it was all said and done - all but two of which were recorded in the last seven minutes of the game. The animosity between the two teams would only build as the series shifted to Rockford.

Game 3 - Wednesday, May 13 - Griffins 1 vs. IceHogs 4 (BMO Harris Bank Center):

Down two games to none in the series and thoroughly outplayed in their last outing, the IceHogs needed a rebound upon their return to Rockford in Game 3. They delivered admirably, controlling the Griffins from wire-to-wire and climbing their way back into the series.

Stephen Johns once again served as Rockford’s spark plug logging a goal and an assist - leading all skaters on the ice with a +3 rating. His marker came at a critical time early in the third period to restore a two-goal lead that Teemu Pulkkinen whittled to one in the middle frame.

Mark McNeill and Ryan Hartman each netted their second goals of the postseason to put the IceHogs up 2-0 in the first period, and Spencer Abbott provided an empty net cushion. The real star of Game 3 was Rockford’s special teams, who killed off seven of eight Griffins power plays while adding both a shorthanded and power play goal of its own.

Game 4 - Thursday, May 14 - Griffins 2 vs. IceHogs 1 (OT - BMO Harris Bank Center):


It was Grand Rapids’ turn for a bounce-back the following night, and the Griffins landed a devastating blow to the IceHogs’ playoff lives and their psyches with a Game 4 walk-off winner in the infant stages of overtime. Rookie forward Tyler Bertuzzi potted his second goal of the game only 13 seconds into the fourth period to silence the Rockford crowd and push the hometown team to the brink of elimination.

Bertuzzi’s first of the game opened the scoring in what was in many aspects the most exciting and tightly-fought game of the series. A Phillip Danault equalizer halfway through the second set the stage for a frantic last 30 minutes of regulation; in which the IceHogs and Griffins came up empty on the scoreboard despite each finding a deluge of quality scoring looks.

Goaltenders Michael Leighton and Tom McCollum were the best two players on the ice through 60 minutes, Leighton having to make 15 saves in the third period to force overtime.

Game 5 - Sunday, May 17 - Griffins 5 vs. IceHogs 3 (BMO Harris Bank Center):

As could be expected, the IceHogs dug in their heels and staged a feverish last stand in hopes of extending their season, but unfortunately, it came two periods too late. Rockford spotted the Griffins 3-0 and 4-1 leads, and was held to only nine shots on goal through 40 minutes in a season-ending Game 5 defeat at the BMO on Sunday night.

Only trailing 1-0 at the end of the first from a Teemu Pulkkinen power play blast, the IceHogs faltered a bit to begin the second period - essentially sealing their fate. Andy Miele struck in the first minute of the second, compelling Rockford Head Coach Ted Dent to yank Michael Leighton in favor of Mac Carruth, who was in turn beat less than two minutes into his tenure by Marek Tvrdon.

A stunned IceHogs squad found themselves facing elimination and a 5-1 deficit in the third period, after the Griffins tacked on an empty netter at the halfway point of the frame. Rockford got a pair back in the waning minutes of the game, but the damage was already done. Grand Rapids took the Game 5 victory and the series, advancing to the Western Conference Finals for the second time in three seasons, while the IceHogs saw their most successful season since joining the AHL come to a close.

17170563394_2a80d4ba25_k.jpgDefenseman Stephen Johns (left) and left wing Tyler Bertuzzi (right) were top performers for their respective teams (Photo by Kris Gray)

Series 3 Stars:

3rd Star: Stephen Johns (2g-2a, 9 shots, +1)

One of four IceHogs who finished the five-game series with a plus-rating, Johns was the most consistent player on either side of the puck for Rockford. The rookie defenseman logged a pair of multi-point games, while playing top line minutes against the Griffins’ bevy of offensive weapons.

In his first taste of professional playoff hockey, Johns finished as the IceHogs top point-getter, scoring seven points (3g-4a) in eight games played. His heavy-yet-skilled play in his first full pro season all but assured that the Wampum, Penn. native has a bright future within the Chicago Blackhawks organization.

2nd Star: Tyler Bertuzzi (4g-2a, +5)

While Johns had himself another solid series, the Griffins used the stellar play of a rookie of their own to grab a stranglehold of the Western Conference Semifinals. Bertuzzi proved to be a thorn in Rockford’s side from the outset, throwing up six points - including the game-winning goals in the Games 4 and 5.

The 20-year-old winger, fresh off of a four-year junior career with the OHL’s Guelph Storm, has carved himself a storybook start to his professional career. After appearing in only two regular season games with Grand Rapids, Bertuzzi has clicked at over a point-per-game pace in the first two rounds, collecting nine points in eight games played (6g-3a). A staggering four of the Sudbury, Ontario’s six goals have been game winning goals, none more dramatic than the overtime dagger he found 13 seconds into the extra frame to give the Griffins a Game 4 victory.

1st Star: Teemu Pulkkinen (7g-2a, 23 shots)

For most players, Bertuzzi’s statline of four goals - half of the game-winning variety - over a five-game series would be tough to trump. Not for Teemu Pulkkinen, however. The AHL’s leading goal scorer through the regular season took his game to another level in the Western Conference Semifinals, and ravaged the IceHogs to the tune of seven goals and nine points in only five games.

After already coming into Game 1 against Rockford atop of the playoff scoring race with six goals in the Griffins’ five-game win over Toronto, Pulkkinen pulled away from the rest of the pack with five goals over the first two games at Van Andel Arena. His hat trick in Game 1 helped Grand Rapids grab the series lead, and a three-point third period in Game 2 ensured that his team would head to Rockford with a two-game advantage.

Pulkkinen has an astonishing 13 goals and two assists in 10 games so far this postseason, exactly halfway to tying the AHL record of 26 goals in a single playoff season, set by Bill McDougall of Cape Breton in 1993. The 23-year-old from Vaanta, Finland tallied 34 goals in only 46 games over the regular season.

Looking Ahead:

The offseason came in a hurry for the IceHogs, with the players and staff clearing out their lockers and starting to head their separate ways on Monday afternoon - less than 24 hours after their playoff run came to an end.

As was expected, the Chicago Blackhawks called for a handful of guys to bolster their “Black Aces,” and it was announced late Monday that forwards Phillip Danault and Ryan Hartman as well as defensemen Ville Pokka and Viktor Svedberg would be joining the Blackhawks for the duration of their Stanley Cup run.

Back in the AHL, as of Tuesday the Griffins are still awaiting their opponent in the Western Conference Final, which will be either the top-seeded Utica Comets or the surprisingly upstart Oklahoma City Barons. The other two semifinalists need a decisive Game 7 to determine a victor, a game that will be played in Utica on Wednesday night. In the East, the first-seed Manchester Monarchs and the third-seed Hartford Wolf Pack are set to begin their series on Thursday in New Hampshire, with the victor moving on to the Calder Cup Finals.

It was truly a season to remember for the Rockford IceHogs, and we will begin to do so all offseason long on Stay tuned throughout the offseason for news and updates as the 2015-16 schedule begins to materialize, as the team moves toward free agency and every step in between. There will also be plenty of stories and features recapping the 2014-15 campaign, and taking a glimpse into what the future might hold for the IceHogs