ROSEMONT, Ill. – With Rockford’s 2-0 sweep of the Texas Stars, they advance to the Central Division Semifinals. Their reward is a matchup with the owners of the AHL’s best record – the Chicago Wolves. While that statement may sound intimidating, the IceHogs will be anything but heading into this best-of-five series. In this season’s head-to-head, Rockford held an impressive 8-3-0-1 record over their Central Division rivals, including some impressive wins over a lineup that routinely dominated every other team on its schedule.
In the postseason, however, you can throw the records out and start 0-0. So which of these teams has the advantage in this postseason version of the Battle of Illinois?
Final Regular Season Records:
Chicago Wolves: 50-16-5-5 (1st in Central)
Rockford IceHogs: 37-30-4-1 (4th in Central)
How They Got Here:
Chicago: First Round Bye. With the Wolves finishing at the top of the Central Division, this will be their first postseason action.
Rockford: Defeated Texas 2-0 in Division Quarterfinals. After besting the Stars 2-1 in Game 1, the IceHogs posted a 1-0 overtime triumph behind 36 saves by rookie goalie Arvid Soderblom.
Game 1 – Thursday, May 12 – Rockford at CHICAGO – 7 PM CST
Game 2 – Saturday, May 14 – Rockford at CHICAGO – 7 PM CST
Game 3 – Sunday, May 15 – Chicago at ROCKFORD – 4 PM CST
*Game 4 – Tuesday, May 17 – Chicago at ROCKFORD – 7 PM CST
*Game 5 – Thursday, May 19 – Rockford at CHICAGO – 7 PM CST
* – if necessary
Season Series Recap:
The Wolves haven’t faced a lot of struggles this season, but they did find themselves behind the IceHogs in the season series, beginning with a 5-3 loss on the opening night of the year despite a 43-22 shot discrepancy. In fact, other than the 8-0 loss to Rockford following postponements due to COVID-19 protocols, the Wolves outshot the IceHogs in each of their other seven losses to their in-state rivals. The IceHogs rode their goaltending and opportunistic scoring en route to a 8-3-0-1 record against the Wolves this season.
How Chicago Wins:
First off, the Wolves will need to limit their mistakes. As alluded to in the season recap, the Wolves have outshot the IceHogs all season long and still managed to come up short. Rockford will look to Soderblom to come up with some big saves and then counter. That means no cheating through the neutral zone and picking the spots to pinch the defense. The IceHogs can and will take advantage of any odd-man opportunities coming the other way, as the Wolves have seen all season long. The mental mistakes can’t be there if the Wolves want to avoid the upset.
Your most valuable players need to step up. Andrew Poturalski was a 100-point scorer this season and Stefan Noesen flirted with 50 goals. The dynamic duo needs to be exactly as advertised, leading the charge for this high powered offense. Of course, the depth scoring needs to follow, but the top dogs and First Team All-Stars have to bring their ‘A’ game every night, especially against a goalie like Soderblom that’s feeling it early on in this postseason.
This Wolves team is known for their speed down the wings, their puck possession, and their incredible volume of shots all coming together to put the most goals in the net in the AHL this year. While they make the game look pretty at times, Rockford has done an excellent job of limiting those high-quality chances coming to the net. The Wolves will have to be ready to crash and grind, which they have shown to be capable of doing all season long. There are going to have to be a lot of rebounds and second-chance opportunities needed to beat Soderblom – one and done isn’t going to get it done this time of year.
Don’t get rattled. It’s been almost two weeks since their last game action, and there may be some rust there, but the Wolves will have to dig in against a hungry Rockford team. If they’re outshooting the Hogs by the margins they have all season and the game is still 1-1, just keep chipping away. The moment frustration sets in is when mental mistakes happen and the IceHogs cash in. The Wolves’ recipe has brought them success all season long – stick to the game plan.
How Rockford Wins:
What does Rockford have going for it? Confidence and momentum. It has a hot goalie heading into a series against a team that hasn’t had a game in what will be 12 days. The Wolves have not been in game action since April 30, when they beat the IceHogs 3-2 at the BMO Harris Bank Center.
If there is a point in the series where the Hogs could take advantage of a higher seed shaking off some rust, it is in Game 1. Rockford should not be intimidated by starting the series on the road, as it has a 5-0-0-1 record at Allstate Arena this season. The IceHogs have had a wildly successful season and have nothing to lose as they enter this series. A win in Rosemont could have the Wolves feeling some pressure.
The Hogs calling card for much of the last couple of months is solid play in the defensive zone and timely goals from a host of young prospects. That must continue against Chicago. Rockford will likely be outshot in this series by a wide margin. Soderblom has a .927 save percentage in five games against the Wolves. He will have to out play his counterpart in the crease, Alex Lyon, for the Hogs to have a fighting chance.
Finding a way to limit the damage Poturalski and Noesen do in the Rockford zone is a key. That may open up chances for skaters like C.J. Smith and David Gust, but trying to take away Chicago’s two scoring leaders will likely be the priority.
On four occasions this season, the Wolves and IceHogs were tied after regulation. Neither team posted an overtime win; Rockford was 3-1 in the shootouts that decided the contests. Count on at least one game in this series to require extra skating. The IceHogs have been grinding down opponents throughout the season. They need to come up with some overtime magic.
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