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Calder Cup Playoffs Series Preview: IceHogs face the Chicago Wolves

The IceHogs take on the Wolves in the Central Division Semifinals.

AHL: MAR 15 Rockford IceHogs at Cleveland Monsters

Although the Chicago Blackhawks season is over, there is some playoff action that their fans might be interested in: the Rockford IceHogs will be facing off against the Chicago Wolves for the Central Division Semifinals for a best-of-five series which starts on Thursday night in Rosemont.

How We Got Here: Texas Stars Series Recap

The IceHogs defeated the Stars by winning the first two games of their best-of-three series.

In Game 1, Lukas Reichel opened the scoring 6:53 into the second frame after a beautiful setup from Michael Teplý off the rush. The Stars did an admirable job stifling the IceHogs through the neutral zone for most of the game, but the top line with Reichel and Teplý was getting the best chances. Credit also to Isaak Phillips for winning the battle for the puck along the wall and getting it to Teplý for the defensive zone exit.

Rockford made in 2-0 just over four minutes into the third period when Phillips’ long shot deflected off deflected off of Carson Gicewicz. Again, the second assist is key here: Cam Morrison knocking the puck over to Phillips is the catalyst for the goal.

The Stars got one back to make it 2-1 less than a minute later as Arvid Söderblom is partially screened by his own defensemen, but the Swedish netminder stood strong against the rest of the Stars’ push back in the third period. He ended the night with 33 saves on 34 shots.

Game 1 was a fairly even affair, but Game 2 was the IceHogs reverting back to a negative season long trend: a slow start and only one strong period of play. The Stars had a 27-15 shot advantage for the first 40 minutes with Söderblom needing to make several huge saves to keep the game scoreless. Luckily, the team in front of him came alive in the third period and that carried into the first few minutes of overtime to secure the victory.

Dylan McLaughlin scored the lone goal 56 seconds into overtime. Phillips slid the puck over to McLaughlin who walked it in for a quick wrister through traffic to score.

Söderblom ended the series stopping 69 of 70 shots and Phillips led the IceHogs with two points (both assists).

Notable players absences from the series: Brett Connolly has been injured from well before the playoffs, and Andrei Altybarmakian — who produced at an almost 0.7 point-per-game rate in the final couple of months — is out for for unknown reasons after also missing the last regular season game. Nicolas Beaudin was a healthy scratch.

What’s Next: Chicago Wolves Series

The Wolves were arguably the best team in the AHL during the regular season, and they were certainly the winningest: they won the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy for the best record in the AHL (50-16-5-5) and were the only team to top 100 points. The Wolves also set a franchise best points percentage (.724), so it’s safe to say they were dialed in this season. Because of their regular-season dominance, the Wolves earned a first-round bye to go directly to the Central Division Semifinals.

Unlike the IceHogs, the Wolves offense is predominantly led by non-prospects, but they were incredible this season. Andrew Poturalski had 101 points (28 G, 73 A) and Stefan Noesen had 48 goals, the highest for both categories in the AHL in 12 years. 22-year old Jack Drury (20 G, 32 A) was the only prospect forward that was in the top-five for scoring for the Wolves — conversely, the IceHogs had three (Reichel, Hardman, and Slavin). Drury has been outstanding for much of the season, though, so he’s definitely a player that can turn it on and stand out despite being younger than several of the other top-six players on the Wolves.

In fact, the general age of the Wolves is older than the IceHogs. They have former NHL players in Josh Leivo (22 G, 24) and Richard Panik (9 G, 10 A) — you remember him — and AHL regulars like CJ Smith (24 G, 34 A), David Gust (16 G, 10 A), and Spencer Smallman (10 G, 17 A). A lot of the Wolves’ success this season is due to having a strong, deep forward group led by a lot of experienced professional players that can turn on the offense — they led the league in goals scored with 261 — and a solid defensive game — they allowed the fourth lowest goals against (194).

One of the biggest strengths for Chicago is in net, where Alex Lyon is the likely starter for the series against Rockford. Lyon had a .912 save-percentage — 14th best in the AHL among goalies who played at least 30 games — and won the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award for allowing the fewest goals against (2.55) in the league.

However, while the Wolves rolled over practically everyone else in the league, the IceHogs actually performed very well against them, winning eight of the 12 games in which the two teams matched up. The reason: Rockford’s defense gave Chicago a lot of trouble, Reichel could not be contained, and the goalies stood tall in net.

The IceHogs are not a good shot suppression team, but their defenders are adept at puck recovery and flipping the ice the other way for chances. They’re a mobile, quick passing group who can activate quickly, and Chicago had issues containing them in that regard. As a result, the Rockford defensemen ultimately contributed to 34 of the 44 goals scored against Chicago.

In the regular season series between the Wolves and IceHogs, the usual standouts impressed: Ian Mitchell and Isaak Phillips, with Alec Regula also flourishing in those games. Mitchell had five points (2 G, 3 A) in eight games against Chicago while both Phillips had seven points (4 G, 3 A) and Regula had six points (all assists) in 10 games. Mitchell and Phillips only played a few of those games together but have been the de facto top pairing for Rockford down the stretch, so that likely combination against Chicago is going to be fun to watch. As stated above, Phillips already has two assists these playoffs. Kalynuk and Galvas were still good in the series, but they were less noticeable than the other three.

Up front, it shouldn’t be surprising that Reichel led the scoring against the Wolves: 15 (5 G, 10 A) of Reichel’s 57 points this season came against Chicago. Four of those points did come against a non-AHL regular goaltender, but the way that Reichel just generally owned that game was pretty magical to watch.

The issue with the IceHogs is that, after Reichel, the forward depth isn’t exactly deep and secondary scoring has been an issue all season. Teplý has re-emerged as one of the best offensive players in Rockford once he was united with Reichel, but the loss of Altybarmakian on that top line was noticeable against Texas. The IceHogs are going to need guys like Mike Hardman (19 G, 13 A), Josiah Slavin (18 G, 14 A), and Evan Barratt (14 G, 14 A) to step up if they hope to win against the Wolves.

Chicago did out-shoot and out-chance Rockford in 11 of the 12 games this season, so goaltending needed to be excellent as well. Interestingly, Collin Delia was the goalie for half the game against the Wolves — and he only lost one of those matches — while Söderblom only played in four — with a split record. One of those wins for Söderblom was a 36-save shutout, though, so it’s not concerning he didn’t see Chicago more. Also, he’s just been very good this season for Rockford, especially down the stretch: his overall .919 save-percentage was ninth best in the league, and he was second best in the month of April with a save-percentage of .926. And he did all this while facing the most shots per game in the AHL. It almost feels like the IceHogs fate in the playoffs is very much tied to how well Söderblom plays in net.

Central Division Semifinals Schedule

  • Game 1: Thursday, May 12 | at Allstate Arena @ 7 p.m.
  • Game 2: Saturday, May 14 | Allstate Arena @ 7 p.m.
  • Game 3: Sunday, May 15 | BMO Harris Bank Center @ 4 p.m.
  • Game 4: Tuesday, May 17 | BMO Harris Bank Center @ 7 p.m. (if necessary)
  • Game 5: Thursday, May 19 | Allstate Arena @ 7 p.m. (if necessary)

How to tune-in

Live stream: AHL.TV

Live audio: IceHogs Broadcast Network at IceHogs.com and on IceHogs app; Mid-West Family’s local stations including 104.9 The X, B103, 95.3 The Bull, and Rockford Greatest Hits 100.5.