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For the second straight season, the Rockford IceHogs pulled off a two-game sweep in the play-in series to advance to take on the regular-season champs in the Central Division Semifinals. Last season they beat the Texas Stars in two games but were beaten soundly in a three-game sweep at the hand of the eventual Calder Cup champion Chicago Wolves. This time around, they swept the Iowa Wild with back-to-back overtime wins for a rematch against the Stars.
The IceHogs should be more competitive against Texas than they were versus Chicago a year ago. Both teams are loaded with AHL veterans and like to play an up-tempo game. Rockford added more veterans this season, like David Gust, Bret Seney, Luke Philp, and Rocco Grimaldi, just for a series like this.
“They’ve been massive,” head coach Anders Sorensen told us on a recent episode of the CHGO Blackhawks podcast. “Having those guys in the locker room helps the younger guys. It helps the Reichels and the Vlasics. We as coaches can get nagging at times, so sometimes hearing it from a teammate, especially an older guy, can create a certain culture. When you look at the habits of Gust, Philp, or Seney – their habits are excellent in terms of the way they play. That rubs off on everybody else.”
The Stars won the Central Division by earning 92 points, 13 more than the IceHogs. However, the IceHogs won five of their eight regular-season meetings with Texas.
“That’s definitely better than going 0-8 against them,” IceHogs forward Buddy Robinson said on the CHGO Blackhawks podcast. “We know they are a good team. They are at the top of the division for a reason. To know we are right there with them and played good games against them all year, we are confident.”
As mentioned earlier, both teams like to move quickly up the ice and play aggressively when they have the puck. This likely means the two netminders will be the most important players for both sides. Texas goaltender Matthew Murray (not that Matt Murray) has been terrific since locking down the starter’s crease. He went 18-10-3-2 with a 2.37 goals-against average (GAA) and .911 save percentage (SV%).
Arvid Soderblom will draw the start for Game 1 of the series. It’s been an up-and-down season for the second-year pro. After playing well in his stint with the Chicago Blackhawks, he struggled when he returned to Rockford before an injury sidelined him for three weeks. While his 2.92 GAA and .905 SV% on the season don’t jump off the page, he is currently playing his best hockey of the season. In his 10 starts, Soderblom has a 2.20 GAA and .917 SV%.
“Arvid had a little meat on his bones after playing for us last year,” Sorensen said. “It was a tough season to start. He didn’t do as well up here as he or anyone wanted. When he got back to us, he had to battle through a major injury, which he’s never had to do before. The way he’s playing right now, he’s back to where he was last year. He’s been awesome.”
Due to the AHL’s unorthodox playoff format, the Stars may have a disadvantage despite winning the division. They haven’t played in 12 days as the rest of the Central waited for the IceHogs and Wild to duke it out. In addition to the extended time off, they will have to play the first two games of this series on the road due to travel costs. This hardly seems like a reward for finishing in first place, as there is a chance they could be facing elimination before they even step foot on home ice. The IceHogs won three of the four contests at the BMO Center during the regular season.
“It’s a little blessing that we got a couple of playoff games under our belt already,” Robinson said. “We’re feeling good. We’re feeling what it’s like to be in tight games. We are going to carry that over into Friday. Hopefully, we jump on them early because we’ve had a couple of games to get into playoff hockey.”
This series will ultimately come down to the goaltenders and the veterans. Stars captain Curtis McKenzie will be one to watch out for. He has been to the Calder Cup Finals twice, with the Stars team that beat the IceHogs in the 2015 Western Conference Finals and again with the Wolves in 2019. He had a six-game point streak before being held off the scoresheet in the regular-season finale. McKenzie is a warrior, and you aren’t going to show him anything he hasn’t seen before. For the IceHogs, Gust is picking up where he left off last postseason, with a goal in each game against Iowa.
There are some youngsters to watch as well. Of course, all eyes will be focused on Lukas Reichel, who is looking for his first point of the playoffs. Defenseman Alex Vlasic has two assists, including one on Robinson’s series-clinching goal against the Wild. Isaak Phillips and Michal Teply both have a goal and an assist so far. For Texas, Mavrik Borque finished his regular season scorching hot with seven goals and 11 points in his last seven games.
The IceHogs have an advantage early with the first two games at the BMO Center and the Stars not playing in nearly two weeks. If they can make the most of these factors, they have a real shot to pull off an upset and move on to the Central Division Finals against either the Milwaukee Admirals or Manitoba Moose.
GAME 1: Friday, Apr. 28 @ IceHogs, 7 p.m. CT
GAME 2: Sunday, Apr. 30 @ IceHogs, 4 p.m. CT
GAME 3: Wednesday, May 3 @ Stars, 7 p.m. CT
GAME 4*: Friday, May 5 @ Stars, 7 p.m. CT
GAME 5*: Saturday, May 6 @ Stars, 7 p.m. CT
Regular Season Team Stats
Regular Season Team Leaders
|Rocco Grimaldi – 33
|Riley Barber – 32
|Grimaldi – 40
|Will Butcher – 37
|Grimaldi – 73
|Barber – 64
|Luke Philp – 11
|Barber – 9
|Grimaldi – 23
|Butcher – 20
|Hunter Drew – 149
|Riley Tufte – 90
Photo credit: Brad Repplinger (Rockford IceHogs)
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