Editorials

Rockford IceHogs: Observations From Loss To Wolves

By Colin Likas
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A majority of the hockey games I view in person on a season-by-season basis are of the NHL and Chicago Blackhawks variety. But I did grow up, and my parents still live, not far from Allstate/Rosemont Arena, where the AHL’s Chicago Wolves play. Saturday presented a fun opportunity, as I got to take in a game involving the Wolves — St. Louis’ AHL affiliate — and the Rockford IceHogs, the Blackhawks’ AHL team.

It was an entertaining game throughout. The video board helpfully noted before first puck drop that the Wolves’ three highest penalty minute games this season all came against Rockford. This game was mostly devoid of bad blood, though the two sides were certainly finishing every check possible. Still, it was a fast-paced game that saw two squads trying to grind each other down in the neutral zone in order to make things happen going the other way. It led to a few great chances for each side, but also a lot of blocks and shots just wide of each net.

Tanner Kero and Ryan Hartman (on the powerplay) scored for the IceHogs, with Bryan Bickell and Vincent Hinostroza assisting on Kero’s tally and Marko Dano and Mark McNeill helping on Hartman’s. You might notice all of the guys I just mentioned have spent some time with the Blackhawks this season — and it’s not a surprise when you look at some of their offensive efforts. But it wasn’t enough, as the Wolves triumphed 3-2 in overtime.

Here are some observations from last night’s game to fill the void between now and the start of the NHL All-Star Game, which sees puck drop at 4 p.m. in Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena.

— Bickell certainly tries hard when he’s on the ice, but he has some stuff to work out before he’s getting back into the Blackhawks’ good graces — if that ever happens. His decision making, especially on the offensive end, just consistently found a way to nullify scoring chances for the IceHogs in this one. He did have a positive moment, however, when he parked himself right in front of Wolves goaltender Pheonix Copley and tried to provide a screen/deflection on Kero’s shot. The puck wound up hitting a Wolves defenseman instead and skipped by Copley, but sometimes it’s the thought that counts, right?

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— I really enjoyed watching Kero play, as he was all over the ice and involved in several of the Hogs’ better chances on offense. His four shots tied with Hartman for second-most on the team (behind McNeill’s six). However, he was on the ice for two goals against. To be fair, no one on the Hogs made it out with a plus rating, as everyone was either 0 or minus-1. Balanced failure.

— Defenseman Ville Pokka could come up to the Blackhawks right now if he only had to play in the offensive zone. I saw a little bit of why he hasn’t been with the big club yet this season, as his defensive instincts still need grooming. On the game-ending play, he took an odd line while skating backward and gave a ton of open ice to Andre Benoit, who took that and wristed a shot past Michael Leighton to conclude the game in overtime. It reminded me of Michal Rozsival‘s weird route in Game 1 of last season’s first round against Nashville, when Corey Crawford was essentially hung out to dry against Colin Wilson. That wasn’t Pokka’s only error on the defensive end, but it was a glaring one. Still, the guy has some fine offensive instincts, and maybe he could wind up quarterbacking a powerplay unit in Chicago.

— Not that Michael Leighton is becoming a key piece for the Blackhawks anytime soon, but he’s still worth noting for this reason: He was beat glove side on all three goals allowed. The first was a nifty shot from Ivan Barbashev less than a minute in that found a spot just under the crossbar and over Leighton’s glove. Might want to have it back, but not an awful goal to allow. The other two … meh. The first came off a scrum in front, and Zach O’Brien just lofted the puck high and slow over an unsuspecting Leighton, one he’d certainly like back. And on Benoit’s tally, Leighton got a piece with the glove but couldn’t get enough. Don’t see enough of Leighton’s play to know if this is a scouting report item, but it was worth notice.

— If the Blackhawks part ways with Andrew Shaw this offseason, Mike Liambas could be the 2.0 version. He’s a guy of smaller stature (5-foot-10, 195 pounds), but he tries to destroy everything that moves and get under guys’ skin. The woman seated behind me took to calling him “the dirty guy.” Not sure how finishing your checks makes you dirty, but that’s fine. Would have liked to see more out of him on the offensive end, though.

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  • — Dano was irritating the living daylights out of defenseman Petteri Lindbohm all night, which was especially funny considering Dano gives up 3 inches to Lindbohm. Dano seems to talk a lot on the ice — to his teammates, to the officials and to the opponents. This could be a good and bad thing, depending on how it’s utilized.

    — I can’t necessarily explain why, but I was impressed with IceHogs defenseman Kirill Gotovets. He just took good lines on most of his plays and made sure to bother opposing puckhandlers without committing a penalty. He seemed very assured and confident on the blue line. This is his first full season with Rockford, and he’s tallied 12 points and a plus-7 rating in 43 contests.

    — Not sure if this is a regular issue for the IceHogs, but they could not clear their offensive zone to save their lives. It led directly to the Wolves’ second goal, and it was infuriating to watch regardless of your allegiances. The IceHogs also couldn’t figure out how to break the Wolves’ neutral zone gum-up tactic … except for the large stretch of the second period during which they totally did. Then they forgot about it afterward.

    Cameron Schilling is brutally slow and not the best decision maker on the defensive side. It kind of scares me knowing how close he got to making the Blackhawks’ opening-night roster this season.

    The AHL is now on its All-Star break as well, and the skills competition will be broadcast tonight at 7 p.m. on CSN Chicago.

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