ROCKFORD – The Rockford IceHogs lost their leading scorer and star rookie winger Lukas Reichel to a call-up to the Chicago Blackhawks last week, just as they head down the backstretch of the regular season, scratching and clawing for their first AHL playoff berth in four years.
But the Hogs are on a hot streak, and they will just have to lean on their veteran leadership to keep that going as they race through the last nine games of the regular season, with that playoff spot within reach. A lot of that leadership will come from a pair of right-wing Canadians Brett Connolly, 29, and Garrett Mitchell, 30.
“Now it’s time to have these young guys lean on me a little bit,” Connolly said after practice Wednesday. “We’re all a part of a historic franchise, so winning is everything, whether that’s in the NHL or the American Hockey League … And now’s the time.”
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Rockford (33-25-4-1) had its schedule re-arranged by a powerful storm and will now head to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, to face the Moose on Saturday and Sunday, instead of Friday and Saturday. The IceHogs are in fourth place in the AHL Central Division with 71 points. The top five Central Division teams make the postseason, and three other teams are within four points of Rockford, whose magic number is 10 to clinch a playoff berth.
“There’s nothing better than playing in the playoffs,” said Mitchell, a Hogs captain, “and winning in the playoffs … It’s a great time of year.”
Hawks steal some talent
Reichel was leading the Hogs with 21 goals, 28 assists and five power-play goals when he was called up to the Hawks on April 5.
Along with other recent call-ups, defensemen Alec Regula and Alex Vlasic, Reichel can (and most likely will) return to the Hogs for at least a portion of the backstretch, and the AHL playoffs. Regula has four goals and 21 assists with Rockford this season, and Vlasic is fresh off a strong season at Boston College.
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The Hawks only have nine games left in the regular season as well, counting Thursday night’s home game against San Jose. They were eliminated from the NHL playoffs last Tuesday.
But until then – and possibly during the most important stretch of the year – the Hogs will do without some of their stars, and will look to lean on a pair of veteran right wingers to lead the way.
“We’ve been playing well of late, but we’ve got some real big games coming up,” said assistant coach Jared Nightingale, who was the Hogs team captain during the 2013-14 season. Interim coach Anders Sorensen was out Wednesday with a non-COVID-19-related illness.
“Your leadership core is huge, on any successful team,” Nightingale continued. “Guys that have been around can kind of calm the waters, and keep it all in perspective. Our guys have done a fantastic job.”
It is this veteran’s time
The Hawks recently re-acquired Ryan Stanton, 32, who skated with the organization for three seasons from 2010-13 and who ranks 11th in Hogs history with 224 games played. But Connolly, who has got 17 goals and 18 assists on the season, and is now the team’s points leader at 35, and Mitchell, who has six goals and eight assists and was a star for much of his nine seasons with AHL’s Hershey Bears , have been here most of the season.
They are the true leaders of this team.
“Everything has happened this year,” said Connolly, the sixth overall draft pick in 2010 who has played in 536 NHL games. “And now I’m playing 20-plus minutes a game, and I’m counted on in all situations. Ultimately as a hockey player that’s what you want: you want to be counted on in key situations. And I think this has helped me find a little bit of that love for the game a little bit more. “
During his second call-up to the Hawks this season, Connolly was suspended for four games on Dec. 19, 2021, for an interference infraction on Dallas Stars center Tanner Kero. With time on the taxi squad, that four-game suspension turned into nearly a month off the ice.
Now, Connolly’s return to the NHL has stalled a bit, but he’s ready to put everything he has into a push for the AHL playoffs.
“You want to be in the NHL, but I came down here … and, I’m starting to get my touch back,” Connolly said. “I just want to finish the year strong, and for right now I’m embracing what I’m doing here, I’m helping these guys out, and trying to help the team win every night.”
Mitchell was just signed to a one-year AHL contract extension on Tuesday, and he, too, is ready to put everything he has into this playoff push.
“We’re a young team, and as we’ve gotten going here, we’ve put together some pretty good hockey as of late,” Mitchell said. “And I still think there’s more there. And that’s kind of a scary thing. We’re so young, we don’t realize how good we are.”
Rockford goaltender is busting out
With his 18th win of the season on Sunday night against Tucson, goaltender Arvid Soderblom became the winningest Hogs rookie goalie in team history.
He passed goalie Collin Delia (2017-18 season) and Alec Richard (2010-11), who both had 17 wins their rookie years. After earning his second shutout of the season last Tuesday, Soderblom is also now tied with Richards for the most shutouts by a Hogs rookie goalie, and with a save percentage of .917, he is currently ahead of Antti Raanta’s record of .914 set back in 2013-14.
There are nine games left in the regular season for Rockford, and Soderblom is expected to be in the net for all or most of those games.
After a weekend in Canada, Rockford is at Chicago next Tuesday before returning home for three straight, starting at 7 pm next Wednesday against Grand Rapids.
Hogs make SportsCenter Top 10
Regula’s nifty move and goal against Tucson on Saturday made ESPN SportsCenter’s Top 10 on Sunday, coming in at No. 4.
Regula scored with 11:29 left in the second period to tie the game up at 2-all, and Rockford went on to win 4-2. He used tricky stick handling and smooth skating just to get the look at the net, and then deposited the one-timer neatly into the goal. It was Regula’s fourth goal on the season, and he was called up to the Hawks three days later.
Jay Taft is a Rockford Register Star sports reporter. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @JayTaft. Sign up for the Rockford High School newsletter at rrstar.com.