ROCKFORD, Ill. – The Rockford IceHogs are looking to improve their playoff position with a big trip to Manitoba this week. Any hopes for the Hogs to move up in the Central Division standings and avoid a play-in series start with their next two games in Manitoba. The first of those games is Wednesday, with the second coming on Friday night.
Rockford (29-23-5-4) is tied with Iowa for fourth place in the Central Division. Both the IceHogs and Wild have 67 points; the Moose sit seven points above them with 74. A pair of regulation wins could get the Hogs back to within striking distance of the three division leaders. That’s easier said than done, however.
“Those are a big four points up for grabs,” Rockford defenseman Issak Phillips said at the team’s media session on Monday. “They’re a really good team, really structured, so I think we just need to come out the same way, a full sixty, you know. Doing the right things, being physical, but really exciting. Just want to get out there and play those games.”
The IceHogs haven’t been in Manitoba since the season’s opening weekend, when they split a pair of games with the Moose. Rockford is 3-2 against Manitoba this season, including last Wednesday’s 4-3 overtime triumph at the BMO Center. The Hogs picked up the extra point via a Rocco Grimaldi breakaway goal.
The veteran forward is beginning to get familiar with his new teammates, having come over in a trade two weeks ago. Since arriving in Rockford, Grimaldi has five points (1 G, 4 A) in his five games with the club.
“I’ve picked up some things, but I’m still learning,” he said. “We still have so many guys going in and out of the lineup, coming up and down. It’s been so weird; it’s almost like we still haven’t had a full team since I’ve been here. We’re still missing four or five guys or whatever it is. I’m still learning the guy’s tendencies, trying to figure out their games, five-on-five, penalty kill, power play. I’m sure they’re still trying to figure me out, too. That comes with time. Maybe it’s more than a few games, maybe it’s five or six games. Each day, each practice, trying to learn, trying to figure each other out, hopefully we can keep building chemistry as we go forward.”
The IceHogs have slowly been getting players back on offense. David Gust (25 G, 28 A) returned last week after his wife gave birth to the couple’s first child. Gust celebrated with a game-winner in 3-2 overtime win over Colorado Saturday. Brett Seney and D.J. Busdeker returned from concussion protocol to give Rockford additional scoring options.
Luke Philp (21 G, 21 A) had three goals for the IceHogs last week, including a pair against the Moose last Wednesday. He leads Rockford with five goals against Manitoba this season.
IceHogs head coach Anders Sorensen has had his hands full juggling the lineup card over the past few weeks. As the regular season winds down, Rockford’s bench boss is starting to find some chemistry among the host of new faces on the roster.
“We did find some pairs and lines that we felt gelled well together,” Sorensen said of his team’s recent play.
Sorensen helmed the Hogs to a spot in the playoffs as Rockford’s interim head coach. When it comes to ramping up the intensity, he believes his skaters know what’s at stake.
“For us, it’s been about the process all year,” he said. “It’s still about the process, but now the outcome does have a little more impact in games, for sure, and they’re aware of it.”
The task is clear entering play Wednesday night against the Moose.
“(Manitoba)’s a good team, structured team, heavy team,” Sorensen pointed out. “We have to find a way to get on the inside against them. We have to find a way to create some zone time, to get them fatigued and get good looks that way.”
Phillips got a taste of a postseason drive last season, and relishes the excitement.
“It’s a fun time of the year,” he said. “I think everyone’s really aware where we are. I mean, we’ve got the standings up in the room every day. You’re checking, I think, after every game, you’re checking the scores to see what the other teams in the division are winning or losing. It’s really fun; we’re excited to push for the playoffs.”
Puck drop in Manitoba for both Wednesday and Friday’s games is set for 7:00 p.m. CST.
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