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Sunday, February 17, 2008

Wolves pull into comfortable lead over IceHogs with win

The Chicago Wolves pulled into a lead, a good, defensible and strategic lead, over the Rockford IceHogs with a 4-1 thumping of the Hogs at the MetroCentre in Rockford Saturday night. It was the first win by the visiting team in the series, so far this year.

The win puts the Wolves in a lead for first place in the Western Conference with 77 points and four games in hand over the IceHogs who trail at 70 points. Both teams are well positioned to be playing in the playoffs starting in April. The Wolves trail the Providence Bruins of the Eastern Conference, who lead the American Hockey League, by four points with two games in hand. Both teams have winning percentages in excess of 74 percent.

Every team in the Western Division of the Western Conference is poised, at the moment, to use an AHL rule allowing the fifth-place Western Division team to jump to the North Division in the playoffs if they have more points than the fourth place team in the North Division at the end of the regular season. Currently the Hamilton Bulldogs, the Calder Cup champions last season, with 56 points, hold the fourth place in the North Division. The last place team in the Western Division, the Iowa Stars, also has 56 points.

The contest on Saturday night pitted a tough Wolves defense and special teams unit against a gritty IceHog team, which has seen repeated call-ups to the Chicago Blackhawks. Wolves special teams, for both penalty kill and power play, are currently ranked near the top of the league. Defense has been especially good in the second half of the season with Nathan Oystrick, Boris Valabik and Brian Sipotz making outstanding contributions and Joel Kwiatkowski leading the league in scoring among blue liners.

No team can win a Calder Cup without a great goalie, and Ondrej Pavelec is stopping and stopping and stopping shots on goal. The Wolves are not riding him to exhaustion, as they have sometimes done with their goalies in previous years, but giving him a break with Robert Gherson covering the posts on Pavelec’s days off.

I was not a fan of Gherson. And, I am still worried how this young goalie will play in the playoffs. But he has shown that when he is hot, he is on fire. And when he is cold, bundle up.

The fact is, I’ve been an IceHogs fan too, for many years. There is good news for Rockford, despite the recent string of losses. The Hogs have a great battery of goalies with veteran Wade Flaherty and hot prospect Corey Crawford in net. Two is better than one, though the Hogs will need to get through the Wolves in the playoffs to prove that in the semi-finals and the finals.

In addition, there is a great, physical and offense line-up in front of Crawford. There have been lots of call-ups to Chicago in the past few months. These guys have seen some ice time in the NHL. They are coming back to Rockford more polished and tougher.

Under the United Hockey League rules, the regular season team was, for the most part, the playoff team. IceHogs fans, you are getting back all the guys who went up to Chicago. Why? Because the Blackhawks are not going into the playoffs and they can return here for assignment.

Also, there is the question of prospects. I’d have to rank Akim Aliu, of the London Knights as the most exciting Blackhawk prospect who could land in Rockford. He is only 18. The London Knights are still in the hunt for the Memorial Cup. But this is a big difference between the AHL and the UHL. Exciting kids like this make their first professional appearance in the AHL playoffs. They change everything when they first appear.

There are still two months of regular hockey ahead. But I’m pumped for a great end to the season for both the IceHogs and the Wolves and a great playoff season.

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