Big playoff series looms for Chicago Wolves, Rockford IceHogs

If you are a bummed-out Blackhawks fan - or a hockey fan in general - and wish you could attend a playoff hockey game without traveling to Nashville, Colorado, Winnipeg or Minnesota, guess what?

You're in luck.

That's because, although the Hawks have been out of postseason contention since February, the franchise's minor-league affiliate - the AHL's Rockford IceHogs - will be taking on the Chicago Wolves in a best-of-five Calder Cup playoff series, beginning at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Allstate Arena.

Game 2 is in Rockford the next day at 4 p.m.

"They're an excellent team, and I think it's brought out the best in us as far as our competitiveness and willingness to play a (low-scoring) style," said Rockford coach Jeremy Colliton before the IceHogs fell 5-4 to the Wolves in their season finale Saturday at the Allstate Arena. "It's perfect for this team developmentally to play a series like this against a team like them."

There will be plenty of familiar faces for Hawks fans on both sides.

Rockford's roster includes 13 players who saw time with the Hawks this season, including forwards Lance Bouma, John Hayden, David Kampf and Matthew Highmore, defensemen Gustav Forsling, Cody Franson and Carl Dahlstrom, and goalies Collin Delia and Jeff Glass.

Other familiar names include D-men Viktor Svedberg and Adam Clendening, and forward Tyler Sikura, who has 23 goals in 74 games.

The first-place Wolves, meanwhile, are led by former Hawks forward Brandon Pirri (29 goals in 57 GP), former Red Wings fourth-round pick Teemu Pulkkinen (29 goals), captain Paul Thompson (22 goals) and netminder Oscar Dansk. Dansk is 13-2-4 and also played four games for the Vegas Golden Knights in October.

"Very skilled offensive group," Colliton said. "Very skilled forward group. If you are sloppy in transition, they will make you pay the price."

So what kind of hockey can fans expect?

Will it be as hard-hitting and intense as Toronto vs. Boston, where the Maple Leafs' Nazem Kadri was suspended for three games for a hit on Tommy Wingels? Or Minnesota vs. Winnipeg, where numerous ugly fights broke out in the waning seconds of Game 2 on Friday?

It's certainly possible.

"You play anyone 12 times in a year it gets so you can't stand each other," said Pirri, who was on the IceHogs from 2010-14. "It was like this when I was there. We were playing Peoria 12 times a year, Milwaukee. You get sick and tired of them. …

"It's going to be a blast, it's going to be a battle, and I'm sure every game you're going to have to earn whatever you get. There won't be any easy games."

And it figures to be everything you want in a series, as both teams have been on fire for a long time.

The Wolves, after a 6-12-5 start, have gone 36-10-6 since. The IceHogs, meanwhile, were 26-23-6 on Feb. 23 but are 14-5-2 in their last 21 games.

As for the season series, the Wolves earned 16 of a possible 24 points by going 6-2-4, while Rockford earned 12 points by going 6-6-0.

"They're a great team," Paul Thompson said. "They play with pace and they've had a good run to end the year to get themselves into a spot.

"It's two good teams that are feeling good about themselves and playing good hockey, so it should be a good series."

Calder Cup playoffs

<b>Chicago Wolves vs. Rockford IceHogs</b>(Best of 5 first-round series)

Game 1: Saturday at Allstate Arena, 7 p.m.

Game 2: Sunday at Rockford's BMO Harris Bank Center, 4 p.m.

Game 3: Thursday, April 26 at Allstate Arena, 7 p.m.

* Game 4: Sunday, April 29 at BMO Harris Bank Center, 4 p.m.

* Game 5: Monday, April 30 at Allstate Arena, 7 p.m.

* If necessary

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