The Rockford IceHogs 2014-15 season came to an end Sunday afternoon, when they were eliminated from the Calder Cup Playoffs by Midwest Division rival Grand Rapids. The Griffins halted Rockford’s postseason in the conference semifinal in five games with a 5-3 win.
In reality, the Hogs were pretty much done in the previous Thursday.
That’s when Grand Rapids took command of the series with a 2-1 overtime victory. Tyler Bertuzzi’s second goal of the contest came 13 seconds into extra time and proved to be the backbreaker in what had been a pretty evenly played series.
Rockford had itself a nice run this season. Ultimately, however, it culminated in the IceHogs losing to a team that was superior at this stage of the spring. Why is Grand Rapids still playing hockey while the Hogs start cleaning out their lockers? Let’s explain.
1. The Griffins skill players were better than Rockford’s skill players.
It wasn’t just Teemu Pulkkinen, who finished with seven goals and two assists in the five-game series. Pulkkinen scored in four of the five games and was a huge factor in how the IceHogs game-planned in the three home affairs.
Tyler Bertuzzi, who only recently joined Grand Rapids after a season of juniors, was really an X-factor. Bertuzzi played a hard nosed game and tallied five goals against Rockford. Two of those came in the back-breaker that was Game 4 Thursday night.
Bertuzzi put back a Mark Zengerie rebound past Michael Leighton 6:48 into the contest. Phillip Danault tied the game for Rockford midway through the second and the score remained tied after 60 minutes.
Just 13 seconds into overtime, Andy Miele led Bertuzzi on a 2-on-1. Leighton made a pad save on Miele’s shot but the rebound found the stick of Bertuzzi. He buried the puck into the back of the net to end the game and give Grand Rapids a 3-1 series advantage.
As the series wore on, it was evident that the Griffins were more adept at handling and passing the puck. This fact was on display for most of the final two games in Rockford.
2. The Better Goalie Was In The Grand Rapids Crease.
That’s not to say that Michael Leighton lost this series for Rockford. He was the primary reason that the Hogs were in a position to win Game 4. Tom McCullom was simply the better man in net.
Reflections On The Last Three Games
Rockford won Game 3 at the BMO Harris Bank Center in a physical, 4-1 victory. Mark McNeill turned around a five-minute charging infraction by Cody Bass with a shorthanded goal in the 13th minute of the opening period. The Hogs killed seven of eight Grand Rapids power plays, the byproduct of a concerted effort to body up on the Griffins.
The IceHogs tried using a similar blueprint Thursday and Sunday, but after the overtime loss it looked like the starch was missing from Rockford’s game. In a win-or-go-home Game 5, the Hogs came out in full pancake mode.
Coach Ted Dent attempted to light a fire under his players by pulling Leighton in favor of Mac Carruth with Rockford down 2-0 early in the second period. It did not have the desired effect. Managing just nine shots on goal in the first two periods, the Hogs fell behind 4-1. Tanner Kero’s lamp-lighter past Tom McCullom the only bright spot.
An empty net goal by Grand Rapids put them up 5-1 late in the game. Rockford then showed some late life with goals from Zach Miskovic and Brandon Mashinter. This stirred up the fans who chose to wait out the final buzzer but didn’t alter the IceHogs fate.
Dent sat center Dennis Rasmussen and defenseman Keith Seabrook in the final game, with Dane Walters and Miskovic taking their spots in the lineup. He also shuffled his lines heading into the contest, though Dent often reverted to the more familiar combos seen through most of the series.
Steven Johns left Sunday’s game in the second period after being ridden into the end boards by Grand Rapid’s Colin Campbell. He briefly returned to finish the period but was held out of the last 20 minutes. (UPDATE-Turns out Johns broke his left arm.) Ryan Hartman also missed a few shifts on the bench after blocking a shot with his left wrist.
The IceHogs played out the final home stand in front of a small but enthusiastic audience. After setting an attendance record in the regular season by averaging 4834 in the BMO, Rockford drew 1780, 1620 and 1624 for the three playoff games with Grand Rapids.
I will offer up my take on the season next week. Included will be a look at the prospects and how they fared as well as what the landscape in Rockford could resemble this fall.