Playoff primer: Chicago Wolves vs. Rockford IceHogs

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
 
 
Updated 4/20/2018 6:47 PM

With the Chicago Wolves and Rockford IceHogs set to begin their best-of-five Calder Cup playoff series Saturday at Allstate Arena, we thought we'd give you a look at what to expect in what figures to be a hard-fought, heated affair:

Let's get physical

 

Led by John Hayden, Lance Bouma, Andreas Martinsen and Victor Ejdsell, Rockford will be more than happy to staple-gun as many Wolves as possible into the boards.

The key will be to keep their emotions under control. These teams don't particularly like each other and were whistled for a whopping 62 penalties in their last four meetings of the season. There were 3 fights, 2 misconducts, 10 roughings and 3 boarding infractions.

The Wolves know what's coming, but aren't about to let it get to them.

"Our team toughness is pretty good," said captain Paul Thompson. "If there's a bad hit, there's guys that have never fought in their lives that have fought for other guys this year. Guys aren't afraid to stick up for each other no matter the situation or who it's against. That's something that we take pride in."

Attacking Wolves

The Wolves will attempt to beat the IceHogs with their very talented forward group. Former Blackhawks winger Brandon Pirri tied for the team lead in goals with 29, and Rockford must be aware of him at all times.

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"He's got a great, heavy, heavy shot," said IceHogs coach Jeremy Colliton. "And the puck just goes in the net. … He can score from almost anywhere in the offensive zone.

"But it's great for our guys to have to play against a guy like that. We'll see how we do."

But it's not just Pirri. Teemu Pulkkinen scored 29 goals, Thompson added 24 and first-line center T.J. Tynan had 49 points in the last 46 games. The team is so deep that Wade Megan -- the AHL's leading goal-scorer with 33 last season -- is centering the third line this season.

Keep it simple

There will be plenty of pressure on the IceHogs' defensemen in this series. Can big guys like Viktor Svedberg, Carl Dahlstrom and Cody Franson use their smarts to overcome their lack of speed? How will Gustav Forsling, 21, and Darren Raddysh, 22, respond to playoff hockey?

Their discipline in all zones will be a huge key for Rockford.

"We have to manage the puck through the neutral zone," Colliton said. "We want to play an up-tempo, puck-possession style. But sometimes it's not there. You've just got to move the puck out.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"And by doing that you force them to come 200 feet to create a chance. Whereas if they can come through less (defenders) in transition, they'll make you pay the price."

Coming on strong

Rockford was led by Matthew Highmore (24G in 64 GP) and Tyler Sikura (23 goals in 73 GP), but it was four in-season additions that really helped the IceHogs reach a new level. D-man Adam Clendening came over in the Richard Panik/Anthony Duclair trade and had 26 assists in 38 games. Chris DiDomenico was acquired from Ottawa in mid-February and has 8 goals in 22 games. And the demoted Cody Franson (9G, 19A) and Lance Bouma (7G, 7A in 20 GP) kept a good attitude and helped mentor the team's younger players.

Isn't that special?

Rockford had a rough season on the penalty kill (ranking dead last at 77.4 percent) and the power play (ranking 25th at 15.6 percent). Over the last 12 games, however, Colliton's team improved drastically as the power play went 13-for-46 (28.2 percent) and the PK unit killed off 41 of 49 man-advantage situations (83.7 percent).

"The power play's been really good," Colliton said.

The Wolves were slightly above average in both categories, converting on 18.6 percent of PPs and killing off 83.4 percent of power plays.

Opportunity knocks

Both squads are filled with players who are looking to either get back to the NHL or hoping to get their first crack next season. The longer they stay alive, the better chance they have to catch somebody's eye.

"We want to finish strong in the playoffs," Pirri said. "Guys in the NHL want players that have won before. For me and the team, we're all looking to move up."

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