Given that the two teams are only about an hour’s drive apart, the Chicago Wolves and Rockford IceHogs have been natural rivals for as long as the franchises have existed in the same league. Their previous playoff matchups have featured familiar names (the Wolves hung four unanswered power play goals on Corey Crawford in a 2008 series, for example) and more than their fair share of fisticuffs and brawls.
The Wolves and IceHogs even teamed up for the longest game in Wolves franchise history — and, coincidentally, one of the first Wolves games that I covered — in 2018, when the teams nearly went to a fourth overtime. (Fun fact, as the game went on, the team’s Christmas playlist began making appearances during stoppages. There’s absolutely something surreal about t-shirts being tossed into a crowd to the soundtrack of Mariah Carey at 11:00 at night.) Rockford won, sweeping the Wolves in three games.
That was the last time the teams met in the postseason until now.
The Wolves have been idle since the end of the regular season, receiving a bye out of the first round of the playoffs. The IceHogs played two tight games against the Texas Stars in the first round, sweeping the Stars to advance to play their local rival.
Of all the teams that the Chicago Wolves faced off against this season, no one gave them more fits than the Rockford IceHogs. As an onlooker, it was frustrating and somewhat perplexing to watch, given that by all metrics, the Wolves were the superior team. Yet time and time again, Rockford’s young, scrappy skaters would pounce on the slightest mistake from Chicago.
For Chicago, the key is going to be discipline. When things go wrong for the Wolves, they tend to go very wrong (see: their 8-0 loss to Rockford in January) and it’s only when they manage to stay on an even keel that they come out on the other side. The Wolves boast two of the best players in the league in Andrew Poturalski and Stefan Noesen. With Alex Lyon back in net, the Wolves can go confidently into the postseason with an experienced goaltender — and if Pyotr Kochetkov comes back at any point, they’ll have two tremendous goalies to rely on.
The Wolves have been dominant all season against nearly every other team but Rockford. Starting tonight, we’ll see if they can flip the page on a mediocre season series and come out strong against the IceHogs.
|Regular Season Record||50-16-5-5||37-30-4-1|
|Head to Head Record||4-5-0-3||8-3-0-1|
|Power Play % (Rank)||19.6% (T-12th)||19.4% (16th)|
|Penalty Kill % (Rank)||83.2% (5th)||81.9% (10th)|
You’re all familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of the Wolves at this point, so let’s dig a bit deeper into their opponent. To get some answers on what the Wolves may be facing in this series, I turned to the experts. Betsy (L_B_R) of Second City Hockey answered some questions about the Rockford IceHogs and what fans should expect out of this series.
1. Any quick takeaways/lessons learned from the IceHogs series against Texas?
The biggest takeaway is that the poor trend where the IceHogs start slow and seemingly have only one period of strong play continued against Texas. Like in Game 2, the IceHogs spotted the Stars a 27-15 shot advantage for the first 40 minutes, and only seemed to come alive in the third period – the latter of which luckily carried into the first few minutes of overtime to secure the victory. It’s not the most sustainable way to win, but it’s also not surprising considering the lack of forward depth and young age of the defense for Rockford. The positive spin on this at least is that the IceHogs rarely give up and tend to fight hard to get back into games.
Luckily, goalie Arvid Söderblom was excellent in net like he has been a majority of the season, stopping 69 of 70 shots between both games. Texas is a pretty mediocre offensive team, but they do tend to get a lot of in-close and off-the-rush opportunities, which is where Söderblom tends to shine and he made several big stops in the series, especially to start Game 2. This is Söderblom’s first season in North America, and it took him a bit to get acclimated to the AHL, but he’s been the undisputed No. 1 for Rockford down the stretch. The Texas series only emphasized how important the Swedish netminder is – how far the IceHogs will go is likely dependent on Söderblom more than any other player.
The other lesson learned, which was also apparent during the regular season, is that forward depth is an issue. Offense for the IceHogs has predominantly revolved around Lukas Reichel – arguably the best playmaking prospect the Blackhawks have had since Teuvo Teräväinen – but Texas did an admirable job shutting down the IceHogs’ top line with Reichel to keep it a low scoring affair. It’s hard to contain Reichel – and he did open the scoring against Texas in Game 1 – so Texas instead focused on taking away his linemates as options for his playmaking, which worked very well in Game 2. And that’s where the problem comes in – who scores from this forward group when the top line is shut down?
The answer is usually a non-prospect – like soon-to-be 27 year-old Dylan McLaughlin scoring the game-winning goal in Game 2 – but they lost Brett Connolly to injury before the playoffs began and that definitely hurts Rockford. They’re also missing prospect Andrei Altybarmakian, who produced at an almost 0.7 point-per-game rate in the final couple of months, for unknown reasons. If the IceHogs hope to score more than three goals against Chicago, they’re going to need their other forwards to contribute more.
2. For as dominant as Chicago was in the regular season, they really struggled against Rockford. From your perspective, what made the IceHogs so successful in the season series?
Rockford’s defensemen seemed to give Chicago issues in several of the games. The IceHogs are not a good shot suppression team, but their defenders are adept at puck recovery and flipping the ice the other way for chances. They’re a mobile, quick passing group who can activate quickly, and Chicago had issues containing them in that regard. As a result, the Rockford defensemen ultimately contributed to 34 of the 44 goals scored against Chicago.
Two names that might stick out on defense are Ian Mitchell and Isaak Phillips. Mitchell had five points (2 G, 3 A) in eight games against Chicago, but it was his defense that was eye-catching in those games, while Phillips had seven points (4 G, 3 A) in 10 games and he brought a level of physicality that was noticeable. Mitchell has been the No. 1 defensemen for Rockford all season, and Phillips – a 2020 fifth-rounder who has rocketed up the Blackhawks depth chart thanks to his strong play in Rockford – moved up to be paired with him for most of the final quarter of the season, and they’ve been ridiculously good together.
Goaltending was also a strength as Chicago outscored and outchanced Rockford in 11 of the 12 games this season, though interestingly, Söderblom only started four of the games against Chicago with a split record. It was Collin Delia who faced Chicago the most, playing in six of the 12 games and losing only one of those matches, but he’s not playing with the IceHogs in the playoffs as he was never reassigned from the Blackhawks at the end of the season. It’ll be interesting to see if Söderblom can continue to be rock solid in net despite not having his best record against Chicago.
3. What kinds of reinforcements did Rockford get from Chicago when their season ended?
Because former GM Stan Bowman inexplicably tried to build a playoff-hopeful roster by trading for likes of Seth Jones, Jake McCabe, and Marc Andre Fleury – which obviously failed miserably – the Blackhawks just didn’t play many of their prospects this season in the NHL nor have too many young players that could have been sent back down to Rockford come playoff time.
The only player that was with the Blackhawks near the end that returned to the IceHogs was defensemen Alec Regula, who was reassigned right before the final game. As mentioned above, the young defensemen are a strength for Rockford, and Regula is no exception: the 6-foot-4 defender skates well for his size, knows how to use his long reach to his advantage, and is one of the better playmakers on the backend – behind only Ian Mitchell imo. Regula was without a point against Texas, but he had a 0.63 points-per-game rate during the regular season and six assists (five primary) in 10 games against Chicago, so Regula returning is a benefit to Rockford.
4. What’s one reason you think Rockford will win this series? What’s one reason you think they won’t?
I’ll give you two reasons – and you’re probably tired of their names at this point – but it’s likely going to come down to Söderblom and Reichel. Söderblom is riding a hot streak from the end of the season and he’s very capable of stealing a series. Reichel not only led the IceHoge in points this season overall with 57 in 56 games, but he also led them against Chicago with 15 points (5 G, 10 A) against Chicago this season.
The biggest reason Rockford will potentially lose is – as mentioned above – due to their shallow forward depth and the resulting lack of secondary scoring. If Chicago can shut down Reichel’s line – something that is easier to focus on during a playoff series – and no one else fills the offensive void, the IceHogs aren’t going to last long against the faster, more skilled Chicago team.
5. Any under-the-radar type players to keep an eye out for who could make a big impact for Rockford?
Up front, Mike Hardman and Josiah Slavin are two players that could break out if put into more offensive situations. It’s weird to call them under-the-radar when they’re top-5 forward producers for Rockford with 0.74 and 0.65 points-per-game rates respectively, but neither name is particularly well known outside Blackhawks fandom. Mike Hardman was one of the few forwards who scored away from Reichel and Slavin is one of the strongest two-way players on the team.
On the backend, it’s Wyatt Kalynuk and Jakub Galvas as the more defense-first defenders this season. Calling Kalynuk defense-first might be somewhat surprising if you know his history at all – smooth skating, power play quarterback type, but he really shifted his game as the season progressed to become a more physical player who disrupts opponents’ plays well. Galvas is the opposite: he’s arguably been the best all season defensively for Rockford, but he’s gotten stronger on the offensive side as the season progressed, especially when it comes to outlet passes out to spring his teammates. The development of these two to be more well-rounded, tough-to-play against in a skilled way could be key to defending against a top team like Chicago.
Central Division Semifinals (Best-of-Five) (All times Central)
Game 1: Thursday, May 12 at Allstate Arena, 7 p.m.
Game 2: Saturday, May 14 at Allstate Arena, 7 p.m.
Game 3: Sunday, May 15 at BMO Harris Bank Center, 4 p.m.
Game 4: Tuesday, May 17 at BMO Harris Bank Center, 7 p.m.*
Game 5: Thursday, May 19 at Allstate Arena, 7 p.m.*