03/12/2008 3:00 PM
IceHogs Saving the Blackhawks Bacon. . . and Their Own
By Chad Huebner
A fan e-mailed me that basically, if it wasn’t for Rockford and its stock of young talent, the Chicago Blackhawks season would’ve been pretty much over a month ago. Injuries have hampered what could be an incredible season for the ‘Hawks, and while the regulars have filled in when needed (like when Toews went down for awhile, Kane stepped into the point-per-game role), it’s been those call-ups that have kept the ‘Hawks season soaring.
18 call-ups so far. A total of about 90 games played by the IceHogs (if you don’t count Dustin Byfuglien, who has been with the ‘Hawks since early November and has never looked back after becoming a physical scorer, something the ‘Hawks have craved for lo these many years).
And yes, that is a lot for any team.
But I think the real story is not so much how the ‘Hawks have stayed alive this late into the season, but rather how the IceHogs have looked so good for so long despite losing key players for long stretches.
Currently, the IceHogs are 35-21-10 (I just counted the OTL and SOL columns together; call me crazy, but that makes more sense to me) with 80 points and stand as the third seed in the Western Conference of the American Hockey League. They don’t have much chance of catching their nearby division rivals, the Chicago Wolves (92 points), but are a sure lock for home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. All of this in their inaugural season in the AHL, after spending so much time at the lower-level United Hockey League (now called the International Hockey League).
Granted, this really isn’t the same IceHogs team compared to even a season ago. That’s because when Rockford became the new locale for the Blackhawks’ affiliate, Chicago imported most of the team that was housed in Norfolk, Virginia, known as the Admirals. The “Ads” were a competent, if not successful, team when affiliated with the ‘Hawks, producing players like Buffy, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Rene Bourque and James Wisniewski, all of which have had a major hand in the ‘Hawks the past few seasons.
Still, the IceHogs were a winning tradition in Rockford before the change, and still seem to be, despite losing guys like Martin St. Pierre, Petri Kontiola and Jack Skille for prolonged periods of time. Look at the ‘Hogs scoring roster and the top eight scorers have all seen considerable ice time with the ‘Hawks this season.
Speaking of St. Pierre, despite missing 11 IceHog contests, he’s the second highest scorer in the AHL with 74 points. Kontiola has missed 14 games with Rockford, yet is the second leading scorer on the team with 49 points. They’re certainly missed in Rockford when playing in the Windy City, but their time and presence with the IceHogs is not without extreme benefits.
When Khabibulin went down with a bad back, the ‘Hawks had to rely on Patrick Lalime as the starter, but of course they needed a suitable backup to spell Lalime. Enter Corey Crawford, who in ‘Hawks fans eyes was just a youngster, getting to play in one of the biggest games of the season up to that point: March 5 at home against the Anaheim Ducks, the defending Stanley Cup champs, of course. Though he got tremendous support from the blueline, Crawford recorded his first NHL win and shutout in the victory. Yet most ‘Hawks fans probably don’t know he has an even more impressive pedigree at the AHL level: A 24-15-5 record (the 24 wins are third-most in the AHL) and a 2.78 GAA.
Unfortunately, the later we get into the season, and the more the ‘Hawks need fresh bodies, the more the ‘Hogs roster will get depleted. Even if the ‘Hawks were out of playoff contention by now, they’d still want to see what’s cookin’ in Rockford. In any case, the ‘Hogs are going through a rough patch (5-10-1 since Feb. 1) despite their fine record.
So how have the ‘Hogs done it so far and how can they continue doing it despite all the call-ups? Good coaching seems to be the key. Head coach Mike Haviland is in his third season coaching the ‘Hawks AHL affiliate, be it Norfolk or Rockford, and is coming off of a year where he was named the AHL’s outstanding coach of the year, setting a franchise record with a 50-22-8 campaign. He and assistant coach Ted Dent have made it an extremely effective point to squeeze out the most of what they have from their collective group of players. Perhaps they even have a simple credo to remember: you don’t work, you don’t play. This is something not hard for younger players who have an eye on the NHL someday soon to understand, but it’s a whole other matter to get them to commit to it night in and night out.
While good coaching is certainly a reasonable answer, it’s not the entire answer. And for that, well, you just have to be a lucky team to win a lot of games in front of an appreciative crowd.
So thanks, IceHogs, for having the ‘Hawks back all season long. You seem to have things nicely covered in Rockford.
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