01/10/2008 1:55 PM -
Rockford, Ill.- Believe it or not, the Rockford IceHogs will surpass the midway mark of their first regular season in the American Hockey League this weekend. After Friday’s game against the Toronto Marlies at the MetroCentre, the IceHogs will be exactly half-way through its 2007-08 schedule.
The following is icehogs.com first half in review and report card of Rockford’s first half-season in the AHL.
A daunting nine-game road swing stared the Hogs in the face to begin their first campaign in the AHL. The first month of the regular season, played entirely on the road, featured some of the top teams in the AHL including two Division Champions from a year ago along with the Defending Calder Cup Champion Hamilton Bulldogs.
The AHL era for Rockford began against its only traditional rival in the Hogs new league: Quad City. In the opener, Rockford dropped a 5-1 contest to the Flames.
After that opening night loss, however, Rockford would go without a regulation loss in six straight games and finished the opening road swing with an impressive 5-3-1-0 record.
The IceHogs then returned home to a memorable sold out home opener on Nov. 2 against the San Antonio Rampage. In a nail-biter, the Rampage slipped by the Hogs in a shootout 3-2.
Rockford would stay near the top of the West Division until Sat., Nov 24. Following its worst defeat of the first-half of the regular season, a humbling 8-3 loss at Chicago against the Wolves, Rockford would hit a franchise record hot stretch.
A regulation loss would not be added to Rockford’s record after that game in Chicago until New Year’s Eve, a stretch of 16-straight games (11-1-0-4). Rockford’s streak would place them on top of the ultra competitive West Division, until Wednesday night when the Wolves topped the Iowa Stars to regain the top spot.
Rockford also received a pair of All-Star selections to cap off a successful first half of the regular season. Martin St. Pierre was named to his third career All-Star team while defenseman Cam Barker was named to his first. Both players were voted in by the fans and were elected to start for Team Canada.
It’s hard to believe that the IceHogs arguably most important player wasn’t even on Rockford’s roster when the puck dropped on opening night on Oct. 6. Center Martin St. Pierre has anchored down one of the AHL’s most potent offenses that has withstood nine player re-called to the NHL (13 total re-calls for the club) and some spotty injuries.
St. Pierre accumulated a club-record 15-game point scoring streak and has ranked in the top three of the AHL in scoring for the past month. The power play has been a big boost for this club’s offense as well. Through 39 games Rockford has notched a power-play marker in 30 of them. The Hogs have only been shutout once this season as well.
Rockford’s core defense has already missed 80 games due to injury or call-up (not including Dustin Byfuglien), but has performed well. Through 39 contests the Hogs have given up just 2.77 goals per game and the d-unit has a combined plus/minus rating of +31.
The IceHogs have really only hit one defensive slump so far this season when they gave up 18 goals in a four game stretch from Nov. 9 to Nov.16. The one area in which could use improvement is the shots against. Rockford has out-shot its opponents in only 16 of its 39 games this season.
Corey Crawford has picked up the bulk of the load lately after injuries to Wade Flaherty and an invitation for Flaherty to play in the Spangler Cup in Switzerland. Crawford was the goaltender of decision in each of Rockford’s 16 games during the club’s hot stretch and splitting time with Flaherty early on.
We mentioned the goals against average in the defense section, and it’s worth mentioning again here. A 2.77 GAA is going to win teams more games than they will lose. But that number could be better.
As the season wears on, a healthy Flaherty will be just as vital as a hot Crawford. Flaherty was solid when healthy for the IceHogs early on and with the grind of the regular season, a solid 1-2 punch between the pipes will go a long ways to having postseason success.
The goals against average are
On the surface, Rockford’s special teams look just above average. But in reality, the IceHogs special units have been extremely solid this season. Rockford’s power play has ranked in or near the top 10 of the 29-team AHL nearly the entire season and the penalty kill is much better than what the overall percentage reads.
In games not against Chicago, Rockford is killing off 87.7% of its penalties. Entering play on Thursday, the AHL league leading penalty kill 87.0% (Philadelphia). Since we can’t erase those four games against the Wolves, the Hogs overall penalty kill rate is 83.8%, which ranks 13th in the AHL.
Hogs fans couldn’t have asked for a better situation for incoming coaches than head bench boss Mike Haviland and assistant coach Ted Dent. Haviland, the reigning AHL Coach of the Year, has helped keep a rotating Hogs team together while battling a bunch of road games and a franchise is transition to the AHL. The IceHogs couldn’t even move into its home lockerroom until the day before its first home game on Nov. 2.
The combination of coaches has had to deal with an AHL-high13 players recalled to the NHL this season and the use of several double-A players to fill the gaps. The Hogs coaches have balanced an almost constantly changing line-up and have continued to churn out wins and standing points.
The first half of IceHogs AHL hockey has been success all the way around. Hogs fans have been treated to great hockey, while getting to watch 13 players get promoted to Chicago. Through it all, the IceHogs have positioned themselves nicely not only for a playoff spot, but also for a run at a division title.
With the dog days of the hockey season here, there is still plenty of hockey yet to be played and very little margin for error in a tight West Division. From here on out, the games will start to take on a little more meaning and intensity.
Overall First Half Grade: A-