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With their backs against the wall, the Rockford IceHogs needed a fast start and to play with urgency on Sunday afternoon. The Chicago Blackhawks’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate was outscored 10-3 and outshot 87-36 during the first two games at the Chicago Wolves and one more loss meant the end of the season.
But it wasn’t to be as the Wolves took home a 4-1 victory to eliminate the IceHogs and advance to the Central Division Final against Milwaukee.
While the opening moments of Game 3 weren’t as lopsided as the previous two contests of the AHL Central Division Semifinal, the Wolves were first on the board. Ivan Lodnia, who was a healthy scratch for the first two games, scored just 2:27 after the opening faceoff.
The first period had plenty of finished body checks and post-whistle shenanigans, a trend that continued throughout the game. In all, 34 combined penalty minutes were dished out.
The middle frame was the best period of hockey for Rockford in the entire series. They got some momentum off a power-play chance that saw them get five shots on goal. They sustained offensive pressure for extended periods and even outshot the Wolves in the stanza. However, they still trailed 2-0 thanks, in part, to going 0-for-4 on the power play during the first 40 minutes.
C.J. Smith’s second goal of the series, just as a power play expired, doubled Chicago’s lead with three minutes to play in the second period. The goal sucked the life out of the BMO Harris Bank Center and felt like the final nail in the IceHogs’ playoff coffin, considering their offensive struggles.
The IceHogs needed to throw everything they had at the Wolves down a pair of goals with just one period remaining. Did we see the resilient team that found a way to get back into games all season long? Nope. Instead, Evan Barratt took a tripping penalty in the opening minute, and Jack Drury redirected a Joey Keane shot a few seconds later to give the Wolves a 3-0 advantage.
The sixth time was the charm for the IceHogs as defenseman Ian Mitchell’s power-play tally got the IceHogs on the scoreboard with just over seven minutes left in regulation.
“There were first in the league for a reason,” Mitchel said of the Wolves. “I thought we were better tonight. We had more chances, and it was more of an even game. It’s unfortunate to end the year like that. But, I was really proud of our guys.”
However, veteran blueliner Ryan Stanton killed the momentum from Mitchell’s goal less than two minutes later by taking a cross-checking penalty, his second minor of the game. That was quickly followed up with an ill-advised roughing penalty by Wyatt Kalynuk, and the Wolves iced the series with a 5-on-3 goal by captain Andrew Poturalski.
The IceHogs will head into the summer wondering what might have been, but they realize they have a ways to go before being on the same level as the Wolves. Despite the disappointing end of the season, a lot of good came out of Rockford this season.
“It’s been a privilege,” IceHogs interim head coach Anders Sorensen said. “I can’t say enough about them as a group. It’s been a special journey to be a part of.”
As the Blackhawks embark on their rebuild under the guidance of Kyle Davidson, Rockford will be a vital stop on the road to the NHL. These five playoff games will play a significant role in the young IceHogs taking another step forward.
“It’s a huge part of their development,” said Sorensen. “It’s the details of the game; how much faster and more physical the playoffs are than the regular season. It was eye-opening for some of them. I think some adjusted well. It was only a five-game stint, but they got better and better with every game. That bodes well for the future here of these young guys.”
Wolves get interesting matchup with Milwaukee
As for the Wolves, they move on to the Central Division Final, where they will take on the Milwaukee Admirals in another best-of-five series.
“At 12:01 am, we’ll turn the page onto the next challenge,” said Wolves head coach Ryan Warsofsky. “As you go, it gets more intense, more physical, faster, quicker. All the words that you can come up with in the playoffs are going to happen. So, you got to make sure we’re ready for it.”
This will be the sixth all-time playoff series between the Wolves and Admirals, with Chicago winning four out of the previous five. There will be few surprises in this series as they met 14 times in the regular season. The Wolves won nine of those games.
Another interesting feature of this match-up is that these two teams combined for the 2020-21 season. Due to COVID-19 concerns, the Admirals opted out of the season, and the Nashville Predators agreed to send their AHL players to share Chicago’s roster. In addition to both coaching staffs, there are nine Wolves players and eight Admirals who were part of that combined team last season.
The Central Division Finals will start on Saturday night at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, with Game 2 the following afternoon. Game 3 will be next Wednesday night, May 25, in Milwaukee. If necessary, Game 4 will be north of the “Cheddar Curtain” on Friday, May 27, and Game 5 will be back in Rosemont on Sunday, May 29.
Photo courtesy of the Rockford IceHogs
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