Photo by Todd Reicher
Rockford, Ill – Down in the series two games to none, the Rockford IceHogs needed a win against the Grand Rapids Griffins in Game 3 of the Western Conference Semifinals. The IceHogs did just that as they defended their first game back on home ice with a 4-1 victory at the BMO Harris Bank Center on Wednesday night.
Rockford got a huge hand from their penalty kill which scored shorthanded and killed off seven of eight penalties on the night, including a crucial five minute major early in the game. The eight power plays against ties a franchise AHL era record in the postseason.
The IceHogs came out of the gate strong in the opening minutes by carrying much of the play in the Grand Rapids’ end. It seemed like the early momentum was going to come to a screeching halt though as Rockford’s Cody Bass was called for a five minute major for boarding at 11:56 in the first frame.
However, despite being down a skater, the IceHogs penalty kill unit pressured the Griffins to force an errant pass that Mark McNeill picked off at Hogs’ blueline. McNeill raced toward the opposing end all alone on Tom McCollum and slipped the puck past his glove to give the IceHogs a 1-0 lead with their first shorthanded tally of the postseason. The goal at the 12:21 mark was McNeill’s second of the playoffs.
Feeding off the big kill on the major penalty, the IceHogs cashed in again, this time with an extra skater. Less than a minute into a power play, Ryan Hartman picked up a drop pass from Stephen Johns in the neutral zone. Hartman chipped the puck behind the Grand Rapids defensive pair before skating in and roofing a backhanded tally past the blocker of McCollum to push the score to 2-0 with 1:24 left in the first period.
The IceHogs were whistled for three infractions during the first 20 minutes of the contest and took a pair of penalties early in the second period before Grand Rapids finally capitalized.
On the ensuing faceoff following Rockford’s fifth infraction, the AHL’s hottest scorer came through to put Grand Rapids on the board and cut the deficit in half. Teemu Pulkkinen intercepted a failed clearing attempt and blistered a shot from the top of the right circle over the shoulder of a screened Michael Leighton for his AHL-best 12th score of the 2015 Calder Cup Playoffs.
Early in the final stanza, the IceHogs regained the two goal lead as defenseman Stephen Johns continued his strong postseason run. The rookie d-man stepped in front of Grand Rapids clear out attempt before eluding a Griffins defender and firing in his third tally of the postseason to give the IceHogs a 3-1 lead 4:50 into the third.
In an attempt to close the scoring gap with 3:40 remaining in the contest, Grand Rapids coach Jeff Blashill decided to pull McCollum and send out an extra skater. However, a hard pressing Peter Regin stripped a Griffins skater to force a turnover near the blueline of the Grand Rapids zone. Before falling to the ice Regin pushed the puck to an awaiting Spencer Abbott and he patiently avoided a pair of skaters before lifting the biscuit into the empty net to seal the contest with 3:03 left.
Johns finished the game with a goal, assist, and a plus/minus rating of plus-3 on the night. The rookie picked up his sixth and seventh points of the playoffs to lead all rookie defensemen in the AHL. The multi-point effort was his third of the playoffs, which is also a team-best. Leighton earned his fourth win of the postseason while turning aside 23 shots.
Now the trailing the best-of-seven series 2-1 the IceHogs will host Grand Rapids for Game 4 on Thursday at 7 p.m. and Game 5 on Sunday at 4 p.m.
Next Home Game: Thursday, May 14 – Game 4 of the Western Conference Semifinals vs. Grand Rapids Griffins. Face-off is at 7 p.m. and the first 2,500 fans into the gates will receive a rally towel courtesy of BMO Harris Bank. The festivities will begin prior to puck drop during a Pregame Block Party sponsored by Swedish American Hospital starting at 4 p.m.