Photos by Mark Newman and Todd Reicher
The IceHogs and Griffins meet for the first time in the Calder Cup Playoffs
Since entering the American Hockey League in 2007, the Rockford IceHogs have played the Grand Rapids Griffins a total of 52 times across eight seasons of action. The result has been the birth of a great rivalry, spurred by competitive play, tight divisional races and the inherent competition that exists between the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings organizations. A couple of bench-clearing brawls between the two teams didn’t hurt the cause either.
On Wednesday the intensity between Rockford and Grand Rapids will ratchet up a few more notches, as the two clubs square off for the first time in the Calder Cup Playoffs. The IceHogs and Griffins kick off the Western Conference Semifinals at Van Andel Arena in a postseason showdown that has been eight years in the making, and is sure to be the marquee matchup out of the AHL’s second-round slate.
In this meeting of the West’s second and fourth-seeded teams, Rockford is looking to push beyond the second round of the Calder Cup Playoffs for the first time in their AHL history. The IceHogs enter the Conference Semifinals fresh and rested after wasting no time wrapping up their first round series, sweeping the defending Calder Cup champion Texas Stars in three games. After opening the first round with a pair of gritty wins in Cedar Park, Texas, Rockford closed out the series last Wednesday with a dramatic 3-2 overtime victory in front of a raucous home crowd at the BMO Harris Bank Center - becoming the first team in 11 seasons to blank the defending champions right out of the gate.
The surprisingly convincing series victory provided a dose of postseason success that the Forest City has desired for quite a long time. The IceHogs hadn’t previously won a Calder Cup Playoff series since the 2008 West Division Semifinals, and were swept out of their last two appearances in 2009 and 2010. But with the apparent ease in which the 2014-15 Rockford club dispatched of the battle-tested Stars, nobody in the IceHogs camp will be satisfied with just an opening round victory.
With the 2014 Calder Cup champs in the rearview mirror, the IceHogs will now have to better the 2013 title winners in order to continue their march through the playoffs. The Griffins have made it to the second round of the postseason in each of their three campaigns with Head Coach Jeff Blashill at the helm, a tenure that began with Grand Rapids’ first Calder Cup in franchise history.
This year the Griffins enter the Western Conference Semifinals ready to defend their newfound Midwest Division title, which they claimed over the IceHogs on the second-to-last day of the regular season. The 100 points and 46-22-6-2 record that Grand Rapids compiled this season was second only to the Utica Comets (103 points) in the Western Conference, leaving the club atop the Midwest for the second time in three seasons.
Blashill’s squad used an incredible second half - highlighted by a franchise-record 19 game unbeaten streak - to go from the playoff bubble at the All-Star break to the AHL’s most dangerous team down the stretch. Led by the league’s most fearsome offense and a pair of First Team All-Star forwards in Teemu Pulkkinen and Andy Miele, the Griffins pose a logistical nightmare for their opposition’s defense.
But where Rockford’s path to the second round was smooth sailing, Grand Rapids had to pull off a bit of postseason magic to advance. A pair of lopsided road losses to the Toronto Marlies put the Griffins in a 2-0 hole to begin their Conference Quarterfinal series, but Grand Rapids rallied with three straight wins at Van Andel Arena to survive. It was only the 11th time in AHL history a team was able to win three consecutive elimination games to make it out of a best-of-five series, the first since 2013.
2014-15 Regular Season Series:
The eight games played this season between the IceHogs and Griffins could not be more split down the middle. Each team won four games, lost three times in regulation and once beyond 60 minutes. Each side came out with five of eight possible points out of their four home games. Grand Rapids holds the slight edge if the series was decided in aggregate, outscoring the IceHogs 22-18, but much of that can be sourced to a 4-0 Griffins victory at the BMO on Dec. 6.
Rockford controlled the first half of the year, winning three of the first four matchups, before Grand Rapids answered winning each of the next three. The two clubs last met up in a home-and-home series in early April, where each team delivered a blowout win on home ice. The Griffins thumped the IceHogs 6-1 at Van Andel on April 1 before Rockford returned the favor to the tune of 6-2 two days later in the Forest City.
Center Andy Miele finished second in the AHL scoring race with 70 points
(Photo by Mark Newman)
Rockford- It was a mix of top-line production and depth contribution that led to the best regular season in IceHogs AHL history, and it was a similar formula that helped Rockford make quick work of Texas in the first round. The unit of Spencer Abbott (2g-1a), Peter Regin (1G-2A) and Brandon Mashinter (1G-2A) helped carry the offensive water in Cedar Park, combining for four goals and four assists in Games 1 and 2.
Rockford’s other top combination of Phillip Danault (2g-2a), Mark McNeill (1a) and Garret Ross (1G) were a combined +11 in the first round, and give the IceHogs a serious one-two punch up front. Danault’s +5 is tied for second among playoff skaters, and the sophomore center scored twice in the decisive Game 3 to help force overtime.
Rookie winger Ryan Hartman (1g-1a), ATO-signee Tanner Kero (1g), Alex Broadhurst (1a) and Pierre-Cedric Labrie (1a) all helped chip in offensively while containing the Stars’ scoring talent.
Grand Rapids- The Griffins own a wealth of offensive weapons that is unparalleled in the AHL. No team scored more than Grand Rapids’ 3.28 goals per game, probably because no other team can say they have two-thirds of the leagues’ First-Team All Star forwards on their top line.
Right wing Teemu Pulkkinen (6g) and center Andy Miele (2g-4a) have picked up in the playoffs right where they left off in the regular season, in which they joined forces for 131 points. Pulkkinen’s 34 goals this season were more than anyone else in the league, despite playing nearly 30 fewer games than anyone else in the top ten. The Finn already has a pair of multi-goal games in the playoffs, and is a threat every time he touches the puck.
A trio of rookies have also made some noise offensively in Grand Rapids’ wide open first round series with the Marlies. Center Andreas Athanasiou (4g-1a), right wing Mark Zengerle (5a) and left wing Tyler Bertuzzi (2g-1a) have each stepped up, with Bertuzzi providing the game-winning goal in both Games 3 and 4.
Secondary scorers Tomas Nosek (2g-2a), Jeff Hoggan (4a), Marek Tvrdon (3a) and Louis-Marc Aubry (2g) all can hurt opposing defenses, while the Griffins are still awaiting the first playoff point from their fourth-highest scorer in the regular season in Kevin Porter (16g-23a).
A further testament to their offensive capabilities, Grand Rapids scored 19 goals in the first round without the services of two of their top forwards from the regular season. Mitch Callahan continues to recover from a knee injury that has sidelined him since February, and Landon Ferraro has yet to return from his recall to Detroit.
Defenseman Stephen Johns capped off his first professional Calder Cup Playoff series with an overtime game-winning goal (Photo by Todd Reicher)
Rockford- After holding a potent Texas contingent to five goals in three games, the young IceHogs blue line will have their hands full once again in the second round.
Much of the onus of shutting down Miele, Pulkkinen and the rest of Grand Rapids’ cavalcade of scoring threats will fall on rookies Stephen Johns (1g-2a) and Ville Pokka (3a). The duo has been Rockford’s best since the trade deadline, and will need to continue to do so for the IceHogs to move on. The 23-year-old Johns scored the goal of his life in Game 3 against the Stars, beating Jussi Rynnas just 23 seconds into overtime to push the IceHogs to the second round.
Head Coach Ted Dent split the pair up for most of the Texas series, matching Johns up with Viktor Svedberg and Pokka with rookie Kirill Gotovets. The move has given the IceHogs a solid top four, as each member impressed during the series sweep.
Svedberg played as big as six-foot-nine frame, picking up two assists and logging a +4 rating, while Gotovets accounted for the third-period game-winning goal in Rockford’s Game 1 victory.
Rockford needs a group effort to keep the Griffins’ attack at bay, and Keith Seabrook, Zach Miskovic and rookie Robin Press will be relied on to provide stability.
Grand Rapids- The Griffins are anchored by a blueline that is equally divided between youthful potential and veteran leadership.
Led by Nathan Paetsch (2a), Brian Lashoff (1a) and Brennan Evans - a trio of hardened AHL-ers who played a role in the team’s 2013 title - Grand Rapids’ defensive core has plenty of prior playoff success on their resume.
The recently reassigned Alexey Marchenko (2a) and Xavier Ouellet (3a) each have played up with the Red Wings this season, with the former averaging about 16 minutes a night in three appearances during Detroit’s seven-game loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
While defense was an issue at times during the first round (Toronto scored seven, five and four goals respectively in Games 1, 2 and 4), the Griffins did finish the regular season surrendering only 2.43 goals a game, putting them in a tie for the sixth-stingiest group in the AHL.
Tom McCollum made 31 saves in the winner-take-all Game 5 against Toronto (Photo by Mark Newman)
Rockford- Even with the strong play of Abbott and Danault up front and Johns on the blue line, the IceHogs’ best player in their first-round sweep of Texas was goaltender Michael Leighton.
Rockford’s backbone for much of the regular season, the 33-year-old veteran turned aside 106 of 111 shots he faced in the Conference Quarterfinals, including a 39-save performance in the decisive Game 3 victory. Leighton’s .955 save percentage is ranked third among AHL playoff netminders, while his 1.67 goals against average is fifth.
Against the Griffins this season, Leighton posted a 3-3-0 record with a 2.41 goals against and a .923 save percentage.
Grand Rapids- Where Leighton’s heroics gave Rockford little to worry about when it came to their last line of defense, goaltending was more of a concern for the Griffins in the first round. A disastrous Game 1 (six goals allowed) by starter Tom McCollum opened the door for creasemate Jared Coreau to get the nod for Game 2 in Toronto.
After falling into the 2-0 hole with Coreau in net, Grand Rapids went back to McCollum for the remainder of the series, and is likely to do the same as the Conference Semifinals begin this week. Still their collective goals against average of 3.80 and save percentage of .878 needs to improve, and is an area in which the IceHogs will be looking to exploit from the drop of the puck on Wednesday.
A silver lining for the Griffins is both McCollum and Coreau have performed extremely well against Rockford this season. McCollum is 3-3-0 with a 2.18 goals against average and a .933 save percentage, while Coreau has a sterling 0.94 goals against average and .975 save percentage in two starts - a 31-save shutout on Dec. 6 and a 3-2 shootout loss on New Year’s Eve where he stopped a season-high 47 shots.
Viktor Svedberg led all Rockford defenseman in the first round with a +4 rating (Photo by Greg Hamil)
Rockford- Defensive Depth. Many were quick to suggest that a potential vulnerable spot for the IceHogs heading into the Texas series was the inexperience on the blue line. Outside of Johns and Pokka, who established themselves as a bona fide top pairing in the AHL, the mid-season subtractions of experienced rearguards T.J. Brennan, Adam Clendening and Klas Dahlbeck cast considerable doubt on Rockford’s back end.
If the first round is any indication, rumors of the IceHogs defensive demise have been greatly exaggerated. Despite five of its members making their Calder Cup Playoff debuts in the series, Rockford’s blue line contingent held the league’s third-best scoring offense through the regular season to four 5-on-5 goals in three games, and added two of the game-winning goals.
If the IceHogs can keep Johns and Pokka separated and get all their defensemen going, it should help them keep up with the Griffins’ waves of offensive skill. If Head Coach Ted Dent shortens his bench to four or five on the back end, Rockford could easily find themselves overwhelmed in their own zone.
Grand Rapids- Tom McCollum. The Griffins were able to climb out of their 2-0 series lead against Toronto despite being uncharacteristically porous on defense. Four Grand Rapids goals were not enough to net a Game 1 victory, and the club needed three third period goals to overcome a shaky Game 4 performance from McCollum and force a rubber match.
Fortunately for the Griffins, McCollum rebounded in Game 5 on Sunday, turning aside 35 of 36 shots to punch their ticket into the Conference Semifinals. It’s no secret that Round 1 wasn’t the best for the Grand Rapids netminder, and the law of averages suggests that both his 3.27 goals against average and .899 save percentage will improve.
With the Red Wings showing no indication of reassigning Stanley Cup Playoff hero and 2013 Calder Cup Champion Petr Mrazek back to the AHL, the starting position this go round seems to be McCollum’s to lose. Being that the Griffins’ offensive depth is already enough to make the team a contender for a deep run this postseason, a hot goaltender could put the them over the edge.
Rockford Will Win If: Leighton is the best player on the ice. The Texas Stars had a similar top-heavy attack as the Griffins do, and Rockford’s goaltender shut them down convincingly. If the IceHogs can get a similar performance from Leighton in the second round they can take a lot of the punch out of Grand Rapids’ offense.
With Rockford averaging 3.67 goals per game in the playoffs and the Griffins on the hook for 3.80 goals against per game, if the IceHogs can find a way to keep their opponent to under three goals they will have a fantastic chance to take out yet another recent Calder Cup champion.
Grand Rapids Will Win If: They can get consistent secondary scoring. Having two premier offensive talents like Pulkkinen and Miele can help a team two-fold. Not only are they bound to rack up points as a series drags on, but they often draw the opposition’s top defenders.
With Johns and Pokka likely to see a whole lot of Grand Rapids’ top line talent, it can create more possibilities for guys like Athanasiou, Nosek and rookie Anthony Mantha to step in and play a role. If the Griffins can get two or three lines of offensive production rather than just one, it could create a host of matchup problems for the Rockford defense, which just may swing the series in Grand Rapids’ favor.