ROCKFORD, Ill. – With nine games remaining in the regular season, the Rockford IceHogs face a tough weekend as they attempt to lock down a spot in the AHL’s Calder Cup Playoffs. It’s three games in three days for the Hogs, starting Friday at the BMO Center, when Rockford plays host to the Laval Rocket.
Rockford defeated Laval in the only meeting between the two teams this season. However, it required an eleven-round shootout to post a 2-1 victory in Laval on March 4. The Rocket come into the matchup the winners of two straight games in Manitoba this week. The Moose crushed Rockford 6-2 in the IceHogs last action back on March 24.
IceHogs coach Anders Sorensen spoke about starting the weekend off strong at the team’s weekly media session on Tuesday.
“I think our mentality has to be to play with pace, attack,” Sorensen said, “because this time of the year those things are important, pressure on the puck. Friday night at home, we want to set the tone early and often and then stay with it the whole game.”
After the Hogs host the Rocket Friday, they will finish the three-in-three weekend with the Chicago Wolves in Rosemont Saturday and at the BMO Sunday when the Grand Rapids Griffins visit.
Chicago, who beat the Griffins in a shootout on Wednesday night, has won the last three meetings with Rockford and is a legitimate threat to slide into the final playoff spot should the IceHogs falter down the stretch. Goalie Protr Kochetkov, reassigned to the Wolves on Wednesday by Carolina, makes Chicago a tough team on which to score.
At the moment, the IceHogs have been competitive largely on the strength of Rocco Grimaldi, Luke Philp, and David Gust, who accounted for four of Rockford’s five goals this past weekend (the fifth belonged to defenseman Issak Phillips). However, Rockford is slowly regaining some depth up front. The Blackhawks reassigned forward Buddy Robinson to the Hogs on Sunday.
“Good voice in the locker room, big presence on the ice, off the forecheck, being around the net a lot. We’re looking forward to having him back,” Sorensen said of the returning veteran.
Getting Robinson back is another step towards what could be a deep, formidable playoff roster. Mike Hardman was assigned to the Hogs on Wednesday, adding another physical forward to the offensive mix. Lukas Reichel and Joey Anderson are playoff-eligible and would provide a boost to close out the regular season if they were assigned to Rockford by the Blackhawks.
Rockford (30-24-5-4) currently sits in fifth place in the Central Division with nine games remaining on its regular-season slate. With 69 points, the Hogs trail the fourth-place Iowa Wild (72 points) but have two games in hand on the Wild.
Grand Rapids (62 points) and Chicago (63 points) sit below Rockford in the Central. Each team has two games remaining with Rockford. Grand Rapids has fewer games left to make a run at the playoffs, but the Griffins have also defeated the IceHogs in the last three games of the season series.
The IceHogs won’t be winning any tie-breaking scenarios, as Rockford has just 15 regulation wins this season. Twelve points in the final nine games would force Chicago to run the table to tie Rockford. 81 points sounds like a relatively safe finish for the Hogs; it may or may not overtake the Wild, but Rockford is looking at a best-of-three play-in series with Iowa whether it finishes fourth or fifth in the Central.
Could the IceHogs catch fire and reel off six or seven wins to close out the regular season? Let’s go back and find the last nine-game stretch where Rockford won six games. That was Dec. 21-Jan. 13, when the Hogs went 6-2-1. Immediately after that nine-game run, Rockford lost seven straight. The best the IceHogs have managed since was a 5-2-0-2 mark from Jan. 31-Feb. 22.
To summarize, Rockford could play its best hockey of the last three months to lock up a spot in the postseason. Just winning the remaining four games with Grand Rapids and Chicago in regulation probably does it as well. Finishing with 79 points, or ten points in these last nine games, is likely good enough to qualify. The IceHogs certainly have control of their playoff destiny at the moment.
Friday’s tilt in Rockford and Saturday’s contest in Rosemont are set to begin at 7:00 p.m. CDT. The action on Sunday starts at 4:00 p.m. CDT at the BMO Center.
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