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Photo by Todd Reicher
04/30/2015 1:23 PM -

Recapping the impressive IceHogs sweep over the Texas Stars

Coming into the 2014-15 season, the postseason and the Rockford IceHogs were not necessarily on the best of terms. Rockford had narrowly missed the Calder Cup Playoffs in 2013 and 2014, and the clubs’ two previous trips to the second season were all but brief - ending in four-game sweeps in 2009 and 2010.

Now the shoe is clearly on the other foot.

The IceHogs tossed the playoff monkey on their backs into orbit as they began the 2015 Calder Cup Playoffs with a statement, sweeping the defending AHL Champion Texas Stars three games to none in the Western Conference Quarterfinals.

In what is the franchise’s first postseason berth in five years, Rockford claimed their first series win in seven years, while avenging a four-game sweep at the hands of the Stars back in the 2008 West Division Semifinals.  The young and rosy-eyed IceHogs - facing an opponent that returned practically every piece from their championship-winning team the year before - showed their mettle with a pair of impressive road wins before capping off the series with a dramatic overtime win in Rockford on Wednesday night.

While the 3-0 end result of the series may suggest a lopsided matchup, the play on the ice was anything but. The IceHogs needed a pair of third period comebacks, timely scoring, inspired goaltending and special teams play and a few incredible individual efforts to end Texas’ reign atop the AHL. One could stage a strong argument that Rockford could just as easily be down two games to one after Game 3, needing two wins this weekend to survive the first round.

But the IceHogs were able to score the big goal when they needed them and get the key saves when necessary, and that is why they are moving on while the Stars are heading back south empty-handed.

Now Rockford awaits its opponent in the Western Conference Semifinals, scheduled to begin next week.

Before the focus shifts to Round 2, let’s take one final look at what was a short but supremely sweet Western Conference Quarterfinals for the IceHogs.

Game 1 - Friday, April 24 - IceHogs 4 at Stars 2 (Cedar Park Center):

Facing the unique challenge of starting the best-of-five series on the road despite being the high-seed, Rockford used a strong third period to claim the critical Game 1. Falling into a 2-1 hole early in the final frame after Julius Honka scored on the power play, the IceHogs pulled together and grabbed three goals in the last 11:29 of regulation to rally to their first playoff victory since May 9, 2008.

In a way Game 1 was a microcosm of the IceHogs’ success this season, as they were able to rely on top line scoring, sturdy goaltending and unexpected rookie contributions to come out on top. Spencer Abbott scored once in the first period to get Rockford on the board and once again in the third to tie the game at two, while Michael Leighton out-dueled Jussi Rynnas between the pipes with 33 saves .

For the game-winning goal, the IceHogs found a hero in rookie defenseman Kirill Gotovets, who was one of 12 on the Rockford roster appearing in their first-career Calder Cup Playoff game. Fellow first-year Ryan Hartman chipped in an empty netter in the dying minutes of the game and the IceHogs seized the momentum and the 1-0 lead in the series.

Game 2 - Saturday, April 25 - IceHogs 4 at Stars 1 (Cedar Park Center):

While most supporters of the IceHogs would have been appeased by a two-game split in Texas before finishing the series in the Forest City, Rockford instead opted to take the Conference Quarterfinals by the throat.

The visiting IceHogs capitalized on a flat start by the Stars and took a 2-0 lead in the first period, which was ample cushion thanks to another dominant outing from Leighton in net.  The veteran netminder blocked 34 of 35 shots faced as he effectively silenced the AHL’s third-most potent offense through the regular season.

Left wing Brandon Mashinter was the offensive catalyst, assisting on each of his team’s first two goals before icing the game with an empty net tally. Defensemen Ville Pokka and Stephen Johns each added two helpers and ATO-signee Tanner Kero picked up the game-winning goal late in the opening period.

Game 3 - Wednesday, April 29 - IceHogs 3 vs. Stars 2 (OT - BMO Harris Bank Center):

It took sudden death overtime to find a victor in the first AHL Playoff game in Rockford since 2010, although it didn’t take much of it. Rookie defenseman Stephen Johns landed the knockout punch just 23 seconds into period four to eliminate the Stars and send the IceHogs into the Conference Semifinals in front of an exuberant hometown crowd.

Picking off a stretch pass on his own blue line, Johns deked out a pair of Texas defenders before rushing the puck down the right wall and around the net. A quick wrap-around attempt beat Jussi Rynnas to the far post, and the overtime period was over as rapidly as it began.

No one expected the defending Calder Cup Champions to bow out without a fight, and fight they did in Game 3. The Stars contested the IceHogs for every puck, controlled the play for much of the second period and took a 2-1 lead into the final frame - desperate to prolong the series and their season.

But Texas had no answer for Phillip Danault, who scored both of Rockford’s goals through regulation, each coming as a result of unbridled will and effort.  On the ensuing faceoff after getting robbed by the glove of Rynnas halfway through the third period, Danault outworked every green jersey on the ice before scoring in jaw-dropping fashion to bring the contest to a 2-2 tie.

Once again, the IceHogs rally would never have had a chance to happen without Leighton holding down the back end. The goaltender stopped 28 of 29 shots through the final two periods  and helped kill a pair of penalties, stemming the feverish final stand of a proud Texas club.

The building was loud, the play was fast and emotional and the eventual celebration was heartfelt and exhilarating.  Rockford not only found a way to exorcize their own recent playoff demons, they found a way to dispatch of a club that won it all last year - all with relative ease.

Series 3 Stars:
3rd Star: Stephen Johns (1g-2a, +3, 12 Shots)

The rookie defenseman helped stabilize a young and inexperienced Rockford blueline which many keyed as a team vulnerability heading into the playoffs. Johns used his size and discipline to neutralize Texas’ wealth of scoring skill in his own end, while helping lead the offensive charge on the counterattack.

His 12 shots on net led all IceHogs skaters in the first round, but none were bigger than his last. The 23-year-old from Wampum, Penn.  will not soon forget his first career professional postseason goal, a great individual effort that ended Game 3 and handed Rockford its first series win in six seasons, and the first sweep in franchise history.

2nd Star: Phillip Danault (2g-2a, +5)

Rockford’s leading point scorer in the first round, Danault found a way to consistently rise to the occasion when his team needed a goal the most. The second-year center set up the third and fourth tallies to secure the IceHogs’ Game 1 victory, before delivering two goals of his own in the decisive Game 3.

Danault continues to mesh well with Mark McNeill and Garret Ross, providing both scoring and physicality while playing top-line minutes.  The sophomore trio combined for six points (3g-3a), 16 shots on goal and a +11 rating in the Rockford sweep.

1st Star: Michael Leighton (3-0, 1.67 GAA, .955 SV%)

Texas came into the playoffs a team accustomed to scoring and scoring a lot, averaging 3.18 goals a game, and icing a quartet of forwards (Travis Morin, Brendan Ranford, Justin Dowling and Greg Rallo) that combined for 213 points in the regular season.

The Stars left the 2015 playoffs after scoring five goals and receiving just two assists from the aforementioned players.

The defending champs were ousted after being shut down by Leighton; Rockford’s cornerstone and Team MVP.  The 11-year professional logged 33, 34 and 39-save performances during the series sweep, simply outplaying both of his counterparts in Rynnas and Jack Campbell.

As of Thursday, Leighton’s .955 save percentage is fifth-best among playoff goaltenders and his 1.67 goals against average sits in eighth.

Teams in the playoffs often can only advance as far as their goaltender can carry them, and Leighton is no stranger to deep playoff runs. He did backstop the Philadelphia Flyers to within two victories of a Stanley Cup back in 2010.

Looking Ahead:

The two teams already nestled in the Western Conference Semis - Rockford and the Oklahoma City Barons - have to wait for the other two quarterfinal series to play out before determining their next opponents. Because of the re-seeding of the playoff brackets after each round (à la the pre-wild card NHL format), Rockford could potentially face three different second-round opponents: Oklahoma City, the Grand Rapids Griffins, or the Chicago Wolves.

Due to scheduling issues at the BMO Harris Bank Center next weekend, when the Conference Semifinals would be slated to start, Rockford will start Round 2 on the road regardless of their opponent or if they are the high or low seed.  The IceHogs will return to the Forest City for Games 3 and 4 on Wednesday, May 13 and Thursday, May 14.

The following chart shows the possible remaining outcomes of the Utica-Chicago and Grand Rapids-Toronto quarterfinal series, and who the IceHogs would draw in each case.



(1) Utica vs. (8) Chicago
a leads 2-1)

    Utica Wins Chicago Wins


(2) Grand Rapids vs.
(7) Toronto
leads 2-1)

Toronto Wins Oklahoma City Chicago
Grand Rapids Wins Grand Rapids Oklahoma City