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High On The Hog: The Monsters Playoff Preview

For the Rockford IceHogs, the postseason starts this week. The piggies of Winnebago County finished the season on a positive note and will be facing off with the Lake Erie Monsters in the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs.

I’m going to eschew the normal recaps this week and concern myself with Rockford’s immediate future, which will commence Wednesday night at the BMO Harris Bank Center. Here’s a look at how the IceHogs arrived at this point of the season and what we might expect from this best-of-five series.

The Hogs slipped into third-place in the Central Division standings on the strength of three straight wins to close out the regular season. Rockford eked out a 2-1 decision in Iowa Wednesday before returning home and clobbering Grand Rapids and Milwaukee.

For Rockford, it all starts in goal…so let’s begin in net.

Mac Curruth continued his outstanding play between the pipes and cemented his status as the IceHogs playoff goalie. He picked up his second shutout of the season Friday night as Rockford beat Grand Rapids 4-0, then stopped 26 shots in a 7-1 drubbing of the Admirals Saturday.

If the key to a long playoff run is to ride a hot goalie, the Carruth Express is ready to roll. For the season, the 6’3″ native of Jackson, Wyoming has a 2.30 goals against average and a .926 save percentage in 17 appearances. Since his March recall, Carruth has won the starting job from veteran Drew MacIntyre in impressive fashion.

In 11 games since Michael Leighton was recalled to Chicago, Carruth has a 1.92 goals against average and a .936 save percentage.  He obviously knows that the Hogs net is his; Carruth is playing with a confidence I’ve not previously seen out of this kid. The key for Rockford’s first-half success was strong play in net. For the last month, Carruth has filled the bill.

Carruth has faced the Monsters four times this season; he’s 0-3 with a goals against of 3.02 and a .913 save percentage. However, two of those appearances were very solid relief efforts. It’s also apparent that steady work has Carruth playing his best hockey as a pro.

The ship on Leighton has apparently sailed; back on April 12, Rockford quietly signed goalie Eric Levine to a PTO. The Wheeling, IL native played in the ECHL with Colorado for 19 games this season.

The signing came without so much as a press release on the Hogs website. I’m not sure why the move wasn’t announced. It seems to suggest that Rockford was in need of a third goalie in practice and it wasn’t going to be Leighton coming down to fill the job.

 

A Closer Look At The Hogs Up Front

Rockford hits the playoffs with some familiar names re-entering the mix. Bryan Bickell and Dennis Rasmussen were both assigned to Rockford and played this week. The forward corps was also bolstered by the return of Ryan Hartman from a foot injury.

Alternate Captain Pierre-Cedric Labrie left Friday night’s game after a collision early in the third period had him favoring his left knee. Labrie, who scored a career-high 20 goals for Rockford this season, stayed on the bench and tested the knee several times during stoppages. He did not take another shift, however, and was a scratch on Saturday.

Rockford has 17 forwards on the roster heading into the playoffs; it’s anyone’s guess as to how coach Ted Dent (who signed a three-year extension with the organization last week) chooses to use those players.

One line that is worth watching is the all-rookie combination of Tanner Kero, Vinnie Hinostroza, and Tyler Motte. The trio has been developing chemistry since Dent put them together in Manitoba last week.

Hinostroza was given the team’s rookie of the year award Saturday. He reinforced that honor with a pair of goals. Hinostroza has gone from a very tentative start to leading the team in scoring (18 G, 33 A). On the way, he’s honed his shot, distributed the puck and is now creating scoring space for himself. He’s also beginning to show up on the penalty-killing unit.

Kero is no slouch, having 20 goals on the season to go with the passing and aggressiveness of Motte. I’d like to see Dent keep this line together and see what problems it can create for the Monsters.

Also with two goals Saturday was Mark McNeill, who finished the regular season with a team-high 25 net-denters. Dent has grouped McNeill with Matt Fraser and Kyle Baun. Rasmussen and Bickell skated with Hartman Saturday; all three players should figure big up front for Rockford.

Jake Dowell is going to center the fourth line and kill penalties after an outstanding season for the veteran captain. Who he skates with could be in flux depending on how Dent decides to use his roster.

I would love to see Chris DeSousa skating on this line against Lake Erie. He brings a physical element and can finish plays at the net. Mike Liambas and Dane Walters are guys who have played fourth-line roles this season, but DeSousa has made the biggest impact in my eyes.

Two wild cards among the forwards are Chicago farmhands Ryan Haggerty and Garret Ross. Both players have been frequent scratches the last few weeks.

Haggerty just has never found a permanent role in the lineup despite possessing a strong wrist shot. Ross…well…jeez. The guy just has been a shell of the player he was in the previous two seasons.

Ross hasn’t put a puck in a net in the last two and a half months. He’s not taking it to the doorstep. Ross isn’t a distributor and he doesn’t kill penalties. Dent has scratched him in three of the team’s last nine games.

If given a choice between DeSousa and Ross for the fourth line, I’d take DeSousa in a heartbeat (the same goes for Walters, though he hasn’t been used a lot in Rockford). Dowell, Walters and DeSousa would be a good group to ice in that energy and checking role.

Daniel Ciampini is also on the roster, though I don’t expect he’ll see any action in the playoffs. If I had to put together a lineup (thank goodness I don’t), it might look something like this:

Fraser-McNeill-Labrie

Motte-Kero-Hinostroza

Bickell-Rasmussen-Hartman

DeSousa-Dowell-Haggerty

All right; I’m assuming Labrie is able to go Wednesday night. If not, move Baun (who I haven’t seen what the organization sees in him just yet) onto the McNeill line. Or move Hartman up and play Baun with Rasmussen and Bickell. Mix and match to your own taste, just leave the rookie line alone.

My scratches (somebody has to sit, don’t blame me) are:

Baun: See above.

Walters: Steady defensive option if injury dictates.

Mike Liambas: No complaints; guy’s played his role and behaved for the most part this season, but this is the playoffs. I guess he could skate in place of DeSousa if things get real physical.

Ross: See above.

Ciampini: Lots of options before he cracks the lineup.

 

A Closer Look At The Hogs Defense

On the other side of the puck, Kirill Gotovets was back in action on Saturday night, giving the IceHogs one of their more steady defenders from earlier in the season. Kyle Cumiskey was a scratch in the last six games of the season, so I don’t know if we’ll see him in the playoffs.

Cumiskey may be having more problems with his knee; he’s been injured most of the way this season. Too bad, because a healthy Cumiskey (as I’ve said all season) would be a nice addition to the defense. It just doesn’t seem to be in the cards, though.

Jay Harrison has not appeared in a game for Rockford since coming aboard in a trade a couple of months ago. Sam Jardine was recalled from Indianapolis this week but I wouldn’t expect him to play.

Defensively, Dent has eight players that could figure into the mix. That would be Cameron Schilling, Ville Pokka, Nolan Valleau, Jonathan Carlsson, Nick Mattson, Calle Dahlstrom, Robin Norell and Gotovets.

Here’s how the pairings could look:

Schilling-Pokka

Gotovets-Carlsson

Mattson-Valleau

I scratch Norell and Dahlstrom in favor of guys I’ve had the entire season, though I think Norell and Valleau could flip-flop pretty easily (as could all of the combinations). In fact…

 

Warning: Thinking Outside The Box

…what if Dent elects to go with a seventh defenseman and just eleven forwards? He’s done so numerous times this season and have pretty good results with the strategy.

Going a forward short sounds like a bad idea, but if your have Dowell and DeSousa as the two fourth-liners and add, say, Valleau to the defensive rotation, Dent could present some interesting combinations for which Lake Erie would have to account.

I don’t see this happening in light of the forward options at Dent’s disposal. Just the same, it wouldn’t shock me to see him do it.

 

What The Monsters Bring To The Table

With parent club Columbus finishing its season, Lake Erie has the bulk of its prospects available for the playoffs. The Monsters went 8-1-1 in their last ten games. Like Rockford, they won three straight to close the regular season.

As is the case with the Hogs, Lake Erie spreads the scoring around. Wings Daniel Zaar and Josh Anderson pace the Monsters with 21 and 18 goals, respectively. Centers T.J. Tynan (6 G, 40 A) and Michael Chaput (16 G, 29 A) lead the Monsters in scoring.

C Alex Broadhurst and D Michael Paliotta were both traded from Chicago to Columbus this summer along with Brandon Saad. Both are key contributors for the Monsters. Broadhurst has 36 points (10 G, 26 A) while Paliotta (23 points) is second to John Ramage (27 points) in defensive scoring this season.

The Monsters also get offense from rookie wings Sonny Milano and Oliver Bjorkstrand. Milano had a pair of goals in Lake Erie’s 4-2 win over Rockford March 24. Four of Buorkstrand’s 17 tallies this season have come against the Hogs.

In goal, expect Lake Erie to lean on Anton Forsberg, who is 23-10-5 this season and 3-2 against the IceHogs. The 23-year-old Swede sports a 2.40 goals against average and a .914 save percentage. Rockford beat Forsberg and the Monsters 3-1 back on January 18. In four games since, the Hogs have not been able to put up more than two goals on him.

 

Home Cooking

The home team has won each of the eight match-ups between Rockford and Lake Erie in the regular season. In the AHL’s quirky postseason format, the IceHogs catch a real break to open the series.

As the higher seed, Lake Erie will get three home games. However, those games are the last three in the series. Rockford hosts the first two games, thanks to the backward thinking of the AHL (Had the Hogs finished fourth, they would have entered a 2-2-1 format starting in Milwaukee, as Grand Rapids will do.)

Advantage: IceHogs. Rockford has the opportunity to take control of the series at the BMO. On the other hand, Lake Erie has been a hot road team recently. Rockford has been anything but.

Since the Monsters were swept in Rockford March 5 and 6, they went on a 7-0-1 road tear to finish the season. Conversely, Rockford was terrible in other team’s buildings in March. They did go 3-2-1 in its final six road contests following back-to-back losses at Quicken Loans Arena March 24 and 25.

 

So…How’s It Gonna Go?

The IceHogs ended the regular season on the upswing, but how much stock can be put into the strong finish? Iowa is a below-average team. Grand Rapids has also floundered in the past few weeks. Milwaukee clinched the division several games back and didn’t have anything to gain in Rockford Saturday night.

Lake Erie is playing great hockey right now. They own the special teams advantage in both the power play (16.7 to 14.6) and the penalty kill (85.7 to 82.5). They are the higher seed and hold home ice over the Hogs.

So why do I think that Rockford can win this series in four games and advance to the next round? Because I’m a bit of a Polyanna. Also, I see the value of a goalie on a roll, a club for which Carruth definitely has his membership card.

These are two evenly matched teams on paper. The team that gets better play from its goalie is likely to win each of these games. Rockford holds serve at home, loses an emotional Game 3 Saturday in Cleveland, then sinks the Monsters back into South Bay in Game 4 next Monday night.

Hey…that’s version that sounds great to me. Let’s go with it. IceHogs in four games.

 

Playoff Schedule

Game 1-Wednesday, April 20, BMO Harris Bank Center, 7:00 p.m. CST

Game 2-Thursday, April 21, BMO Harris Bank Center, 7:00 p.m. CST

Game 3-Saturday, April 23, Quicken Loans Arena, 6:00 p.m. CST

Game 4-Monday, April 25, Quicken Loans Arena, 6:00 p.m. CST (if necessary)

Game 5-Thursday, April 28, Quicken Loans Arena, 6:00 p.m. CST (if necessary)

I’ll be sending out occasional updates throughout the Hogs playoff run. Follow me @JonFromi on twitter to stay in the loop.

 

 

 

 

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