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The Rockford IceHogs knocked out the Texas Stars last Friday night when Dylan McLaughlin’s overtime goal completed the two-game sweep. They now face a familiar foe in the Central Division Semifinals in the Chicago Wolves.
The Wolves finished the regular season with the most points in the American Hockey League (AHL) and set a single-season franchise record with a .724 points percentage. They will have home-ice advantage throughout their run in the Calder Cup Playoffs. However, that might not be the advantage you think it is. The road team won eight of the 12 games between these two teams this season.
The IceHogs were the only team to have sustained success over the Wolves this season, going 8-3-0-1 with a 5-0-0-1 record at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont. While the record says Rockford was dominant, it couldn’t be further from the truth. The Wolves outplayed their in-state rivals during much of their regular-season series but were on the wrong side of numerous close games.
The Wolves outshot the IceHogs in 11 of the 12 games, averaging 39.0 shots per game, with the IceHogs putting up 23.3 per game. Seven games were decided by just one goal, including each of the final five meetings. Four games needed to be decided by a shootout, which is not an option during the postseason.
You can use the old cliché about throwing out the record books when these two teams meet, but it holds true in this rivalry. Since the IceHogs joined AHL in 2007, they are 85-68-10-3 against the Wolves, with 13 of the last 23 games decided by a lone goal.
This is the third Calder Cup Playoff series between these two teams, with the Wolves being the top seed each time. The first came in the 2008 West Division Final when the IceHogs had a 3-2 series lead before the Wolves beat Corey Crawford in Games 6 and 7 on their way to a Calder Cup championship.
These two met in the 2018 Central Division Semifinals, and the IceHogs got revenge with a three-game sweep. The final contest of the series was the longest game in Wolves history, with Victor Ejdsell scoring late into the third overtime to give Rockford the clinching victory. They swept the Manitoba Moose before losing the Western Conference Finals to the Stars in six games.
The Wolves were “rewarded” with a bye for winning the Central Division. However, they haven’t played since they won 3-2 in Rockford on April 30.
“It’s good and bad,” Wolves head coach Ryan Warsofsky told me about the 12-day layoff. “It’s not slowing us down, but as coaches, you can sometimes over-prepare. There is endless amounts of video and analytics you can look at. We are at the point now where it is time to play.”
Wolves forward Stefan Noesen, who led the AHL with 48 goals in the regular season, is ready to renew this rivalry.
“We are two hard-fought teams,” he said on Tuesday. “We don’t give them much, but it winds up in the back of our net whenever we do. We need to be sound defensively and not cheat for offense to be successful. We just need to hunker down and when we get our chances, bury them.”
While the Wolves have been practicing in suburban Hoffman Estates, the IceHogs already have two games under their belts. This will serve as a big advantage considering the Wolves have quite a few young players who have yet to experience AHL playoff hockey. Everybody in the Rockford locker room knows what to expect, and they might be able to use that to jump to an early advantage in Game 1. Warsofsky said he has sent a clear message to his young players about to play in their first Calder Cup Playoff game.
“It’s going to be fast. It’s going to be intense. It’s going to be physical. It’s a different level than the regular season. As as much as myself and the other coaches can talk about it, until you experience that and get punched in the face a little bit, you don’t really know what it is all about. So, hopefully, it gets into that right away. We want to come out and be physical and intense.”
Meanwhile, in Rockford, the IceHogs have far less pressure in being the underdogs. They know how to beat the Wolves, and they are ready to carry that regular-season success over into the playoffs.
“They have a certain way they play,” IceHogs interim head coach Andres Sorensen said of the Wolves. “We feel pretty comfortable with the matchups and knowing what they do. Then it’s a matter of execution.”
Blackhawks’ top prospect Lukas Reichel led all IceHogs with five goals and 15 points versus the Wolves during the regular season.
“I think we’re ready after working on some of the little things today,” the young German forward said after Wednesday’s practice. “The boys are excited. Chicago is a really good team, but we know how they play. Their weaknesses and strengths. It’s going to be hard, but it’s going to be fun.”
One of the few IceHogs that has extensive postseason experience is captain Garrett Mitchell. He has played in 54 AHL playoff games and captained the 2016 Hershey Bears team that made a run to the Calder Cup Finals. He brings leadership and toughness to this Rockford lineup. His line, with winger Dmitri Osipov and Kurtis Gabriel, will be out early in tonight’s game to finish a few body checks and set the tone.
“Any time you play a team 12 times, there will be some bad blood there,” he said of their rivals from the Windy City. “They’ve got a great power play with some guys who can put the puck in the net. It’s being disciplined and staying out of the box. We’ve proven we can beat them there and in our building, so it’s exciting.
It will be a fun series to cover and be a part of. It’s your classic David versus Goliath scenario, but Goliath is coming into the series with a ton of confidence.
Photo courtesy of the Rockford IceHogs
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