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This time last week was a very exciting time for Chicago Blackhawks fans as the NHL season is winding down, and the focus can seriously turn to the prospect system as the NCAA tournament reached the Frozen Four, the CHL playoffs began, and the Rockford IceHogs continue to fight for Calder Cup Playoff positioning. But fast-forward a week and things don’t look so great as there will be no prospects in the NCAA Championship game, one prospect is on the brink of OHL playoff elimination, and the IceHogs struggle without some of their top contributors in the lineup.
Cross your fingers for long postseason runs, and let’s dive into the latest news and notes from Greg and Mario’s Rebuild Report notebooks.
Mario’s Notebook: No Blackhawks in the Natty, CHL Playoffs roll along
- The week began with so much excitement around the Blackhawks’ prospect system regarding their NCAA prospects. We had reached the NCAA Frozen Four with Minnesota, Boston, Michigan, and Quinnipiac as the last four teams standing. With Ryan Greene and Drew Commesso leading Boston and Frank Nazar helping Michigan, the Blackhawks had a chance to have all three of their representatives reach the NCAA Championship game.
- That didn’t happen.
- First, top-seeded Minnesota took care of business against Boston in a 6-2 win.
- Despite the final score, Commesso did everything he could in net to keep the Terriers alive against the top team in the country.
- The game was tied 2-2 heading into the third period, but the speed and talent depth of the Golden Gophers squad was too much and eventually wore down Boston with a four-goal third period, led by 2023 NHL Draft-eligible defenseman Luke Middlestadt.
- I don’t know about you, but that half-clapper on the second goal looked a lot like a prime Duncan Keith shot. Just saying.
- I mentioned Middlestadt last week as a player the Blackhawks could target to add to their blue-line depth in this year’s draft. He’s looked at as a third-round target by most.
- Greene ends his freshman season at Boston with nine goals and 31 points in 38 games this season, while Commesso finishes his third year of college hockey with a 24-8-0 record with two shutouts, a 2.46 goals-against average (GAA), and a .913 save percentage (SV%).
- In three NCAA seasons, Commesso holds a 43-22-4 record at Boston with three shutouts, a 2.57 GAA, and a .914 SV% and was named to the Hockey East All-Rookie team in 2021 and named to the 2023 Hockey East All-Tournament team this year. I don’t believe there is any rush to sign Commesso to his entry-level contract before the 2023-24 season, another year at Boston can’t hurt him, but I also see the trend of the Blackhawks getting their high-priority prospects under contract and wouldn’t be surprised if they did want to get Commesso into the organization quickly. He could sign this offseason and join the IceHogs next season as a potential starter as Arvid Söderblom likely makes the jump to a full-time NHL goaltender next year.
- There is still a lot of time to have this play out.
- Meeting Minnesota in the NCAA Championship game is two-seeded Quinnipiac after a 5-2 win over Michigan. The game was much closer than the score indicated, another contest that was tied 2-2 heading into the third period. Unfortunately for Nazar and the Wolverines, the Bobcats regained the lead early in the third period, and the highly talented Michigan squad, led by Adam Fantilli and Luke Hughes, couldn’t respond, and Quinnipiac rolled to a three-goal third period and into the Final.
- For Nazar, the ride to the Frozen Four was an awesome opportunity to get as much on-ice experience as a Freshman at Michigan as possible. He missed a huge part of the season after having hip surgery, but he came back late in the year and recorded two goals and seven points in 13 games. He’ll very likely be returning to Michigan next season and will be playing in a regular top-six forward role, if not on the top line, which would be an excellent growth opportunity for him.
- Nazar could be playing another season alongside Fantilli at Michigan next year, and the two could be future Blackhawks teammates for year two. Fantilli was doing everything he could to drag Michigan to the Championship game against Quinnipiac, including a huge slap-shot goal in the second period, but this was another year where a very stacked Michigan squad fell short of their lofty expectations.
- The guy is going to be the second pick in the 2023 NHL Draft behind Connor Bedard, and in basically every other draft class in the past 5-7 years, would be a No. 1 or No. 2 prospect. Fantilli seems almost as close to a sure thing to be a big-impact NHL player as Bedard does.
- Another teammate of Fantilli and Nazar’s this season that Blackhawks fans should be paying attention to is Gavin Brindley. He’s not the biggest forward, but his high-energy game and hands make him a highly intriguing player that could be in the mix in the later first round, where the Tampa Bay pick that the Blackhawks hold could slot in. Brindley finished his first college season fifth on the team in scoring with 12 goals and 38 points in 41 games with the Wolverines. The only U19 2023 NHL Draft-eligible player in the NCAA to score more points than Brindley this season was…Fantilli.
- Now, moving North of the border where the CHL playoffs are fully underway. Starting in the QMJHL with Samuel Savoie and the Gatineau Olympiques, Savoie has two assists in four playoff games against the Saint John Sea Dogs, where Gatineau holds a 3-1 series lead heading into Game 5 on Friday night.
- Lots going on in the OHL with the Blackhawks prospects, starting with Sarnia Sting defenseman Ethan Del Mastro. With four assists in four games, Del Mastro has already surpassed his OHL playoffs career-high point total as the Sting hold a 3-1 series lead over the Guelph Storm. Game 5 is set to drop the puck on Friday night.
- Also playing in Game 5 on Friday night will be the most recently signed Blackhawks prospect Gavin Hayes, and the Flint Firebirds.
- Hayes had a huge season with Flint this year, recording 41 goals and 81 points in 66 regular season games. After a big OHL regular season production rate, Hayes has yet to record a point through the first four games of the opening round series between Flint and the Saginaw Spirit, which is 3-1 in favor of Saginaw.
- Another OHLer that recently signed his entry-level deal with the Blackhawks, Kingston’s Paul Ludwinski, is nominated for one of the biggest awards in the league as he is the Frontenacs’ representative for the Red Tilson Trophy as the OHL’s Most Outstanding Player.
- Finally, in the WHL, we start with another already-signed prospect with Jalen Luypen and the Tri-City Americans. Luypen was part of last season’s WHL Championship team with the Edmonton Oil Kings and looks to try to repeat individually as a WHL champion. He finished the regular season with 39 points in 38 games and continues that scoring pace into the postseason, recording three goals and five points in four playoff games for Tri-City. Luypen and the Americans are tied 2-2 in their series against the Prince George Cougars, with Game 5 happening on Friday night.
- Also, in the WHL, the Blackhawks’ trio of prospects with the Seattle Thunderbirds are taking care of business. A deeply talented team, anything less than a trip to the Memorial Cup this postseason feels like a letdown for this Seattle team. Colton Dach, Kevin Korchinski, and Nolan Allan look to help the Thunderbirds reach that goal. It got off to a great start with a four-game sweep of the Kelowna Rockets in their opening-round matchup.
- The series had a familiar feel for Dach as he was part of the Kelowna squad that the Thunderbirds dispatched from the WHL playoffs last year, and was named Captain of the Rockets earlier this year before eventually being traded following the World Junior Championships. Dach recorded two assists in the four-game sweep of his former team.
- Kevin Korchinski led his team’s defensemen in points during the regular season with 11 goals and 73 points in 54 games. In the first-round sweep, he tallied three assists.
- Leading the Thunderbirds defensemen in points through the four-game sweep is Nolan Allan, with a goal and four points in four games.
- Another player to pay attention to in the WHL playoffs is the top prospect in the 2023 NHL Draft class, Connor Bedard. In 57 regular season games this year, Bedard led all players in goals (71) and points (143) in both the WHL and across the entire CHL.
- In the postseason, it has been more of the same from Bedard, which can feel “ho-hum” at this point because we have been desensitized to how crazy good he has been playing.
- In four games so far for the Pats in their opening series against the Saskatoon Blades, Bedard has eight goals and 13 points, while the Pats are tied 2-2 in the series. Game 5 commences on Friday night back in Saskatoon.
- While it’s not postseason time yet for the USHL, wanted to keep up on the top prospect in the Blackhawks’ system that is currently playing there with 2022 first-round pick Sam Rinzel. In 52 regular season games this year, Rinzel ranks ninth in the league among defensemen in scoring with nine goals and 34 points. Rinzel had a stretch from February 24 to March 10 where he recorded six points in five games but has just three points in nine games since then. Waterloo is currently ranked second in the USHL Western Conference with 71 points and has already clinched a playoff berth.
Greg’s Notebook: IceHogs playoff run in jeopardy, Victor Stjernborg nets first postseason goal
- Before the IceHogs began their busy weekend, they received an update from the medical staff. Paul Ludwinski, who just signed an amateur tryout (ATO) contract last week, will be out indefinitely with a left ankle sprain he suffered while playing for the Kingston Frontenacs in the OHL.
- The weekend got off on the wrong foot when the Laval Rocket came to the BMO Center Friday night and handed the IceHogs a 3-0 defeat. The first period was interrupted for nearly an hour due to tornado warnings in Rockford, causing the seating area to be evacuated. Former IceHog Nicolas Beaudin helped the Rocket break the scoreless tie late in the second period when Emil Heineman redirected his shot from the point into the net. Beaudin picked up the secondary assists on both of Mitchell Stephens’ third-period goals. The Blackhawks’ first-round pick in 2018 has two goals and 25 points in 39 games for Laval. Arivd Soderblom played well by making 37 saves, but the Rockford offense remained cold, getting blanked by Cayden Primeau on 25 shots.
- The IceHogs began April just like they ended March, with a 3-0 loss, this time against the Chicago Wolves. The home team built a 2-0 lead six minutes into the game with goals from Josh Melnick and Anttoni Honka. The IceHogs did not get a single shot on goal during the opening frame. Griffin Mendel capped off the scoring early in the second period. Things heated up in the third period as the rivals combined for 33 penalty minutes. Rockford had to kill off a four-minute 5v3 power play, but they could not get any of their 19 shots past Pyotr Kochetkov. Meanwhile, Jaxson Stauber was hung with the loss after a 35-save performance.
- The IceHogs finally got back into the win column with a 5-1 victory over the Grand Rapids Griffins on home ice Sunday. Luke Philp scored the first goal of the weekend when he put home a rebound from a Buddy Robinson shot late in the opening frame. Brett Seney doubled the lead 15 seconds into the second period by cashing in off a Mike Hardman Rebound. Less than five minutes later, defenseman Jakub Galvas put Rockford up 3-0. Rookie blueliner Andrew Perrot picked an assist on the play for his first career AHL point. Danny O’Regan scored the visitors’ lone goal while on a power play moments later. Seney added a second goal, this one of the empty-net variety, late in the third period. With just over a minute to play, Perrott scored his first career AHL goal to complete the scoring. Soderblom made 36 saves to give the IceHogs their first regulation win at the BMO Center since Dec. 31.
- Ryder Rolston, who signed his entry-level contract with the Blackhawks last month, practiced with the IceHogs for the first time without a non-contact jersey on Tuesday. He could add a new dynamic to the lineup if he makes his professional debut before the end of the season. The plan is for defenseman Alex Vlasic to return to Rockford after this current Blackhawks’ road trip. Lukas Reichel and Joey Anderson will be reassigned to the IceHogs once the NHL season concludes on April 13.
- The IceHogs’ once comfortable cushion for a Calder Cup Playoffs spot has evaporated. They are still in the fifth and final spot, but their lead over the Wolves is down to just two points. The Iowa Wild are three points ahead of Rockford with 74 points. The Manitoba Moose are in third place with 77 points, while the Texas Stars and Milwaukee Admirals are tied atop the Central Division with 84 points. Both the Stars and Admirals have clinched postseason berths.
- Six games are left in the regular season, with half of those contests coming this week. The IceHogs will play a home-and-home series with the Admirals starting Friday night in Milwaukee. After Saturday’s rematch, they will host the Wolves in a huge game Tuesday night.
- The KHL Conference Finals got underway this past week. Ilya Safonov and Ak Bars Kazan, the top seed in the Eastern Conference, have a 2-1 series lead over Avangard Omsk. Both of Ak Bars’ wins were 3-2 overtime victories. Safonov had an assist during their 3-2 loss in Game 2. The sixth-round pick in 2021 has three goals and five points in 14 playoff games.
- There was some tragic news out of Russia this week too. The father of top draft prospect Matvei Michkov, who was missing for two days, was found in a pond near Sochi on Tuesday. The Russian Ice Hockey Federation says Andrei Michkov died under “unexplained circumstances.”
- Victor Stjerborg and top-seeded Växjö Lakers are down 2-1 in their SHL Semifinals series versus Frölunda HC. The 2021 fourth-round pick scored his first SHL postseason goal in a 6-2 Game 1 win. It was an empty-net goal, but he showed off his high motor to beat two defenders to the puck. Stjernborg has stepped up his game in the playoffs with a goal and four points in 10 games after a goal and eight points in 42 regular season games.
- Leo Carlsson, another potential top pick for the Blackhawks, is playing in the other SHL Semifinal. He and Örebro HK are up 2-1 on second seed Skellefteå AIK. The top-rated forward had a goal and an assist in a 5-2 Game 1 win. He picked up an assist in Game 2’s 3-2 overtime victory. The only game of the series he has been held off the scoresheet was the 3-0 defeat in Game 3. Carlsson has a goal and eight points in 10 postseason contests.
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