ROCKFORD, ILL – The two lower-seeded teams in the Central Division face off in the Central Division Finals after both upsetting the higher-seed team. The Rockford IceHogs upset the Central Division Champion Chicago Wolves, sweeping them in three games, while the Manitoba Moose downed the defending Calder Cup Champion Grand Rapids Griffins in five games. Now, the Central’s three and four seed will duke it out in a best-of-seven series to decide which will face the winner of the Tucson Roadrunners and Texas Stars in the Western Conference Finals.

While the Manitoba Moose began the 2018 season with a commanding lead over their Central Division compatriots, they slid to the third spot in the division after going 3-7-0-0 in their final ten games to end the season. It took them five games to down the Griffins in the opening round, just outscoring them 15-14 over the five games. Four of the five games saw the victor win by three or more goals, with just the opening game being a one-goal margin.

The Rockford IceHogs, on the other hand, made a late season push to force out the Iowa Wild and Milwaukee Admirals for the final playoff spot, finishing the season 7-3-0-0 themselves to match up against their instate rivals for the first round. What surprised many folks is the decision to go with rookie Collin Delia in net against a team known for its ability to fire shot after shot on goal on the opposing team. Delia stood tall, however, letting in six goals total over the three games (four, really, considering game three required three overtime periods), and backstopped his team to the upset. Game three of this series was also the eighth-longest game in American Hockey League history.

The Manitoba Moose’s Sami Niku won the 2017-18 Eddie Shore Award winner as the AHL’s outstanding defenceman, and is only the second rookie ever to win this award. Mason Appleton was also named as the winner of the Dudley (Red) Garrett Award as the AHL’s Outstanding Rookie, and Moose head coach Pascal Vincent was the winner of the Louis A.R. Pieri Award as the AHL’s outstanding coach for the 2017-18 season.

Final Regular Season Records:

Rockford IceHogs: 40-28-4-4, 88 points (4th in Central Division, 7th in Western Conference)

Manitoba Moose: 42-264-4, 92 points (3rd in Central Division, 4th in Western Conference)

Division Semifinals Results:

Rockford IceHogs: Defeated one-seed Chicago Wolves 3-0.

  • G1 IceHogs 2 @ Wolves 1
  • G2 Wolves 2 @ IceHogs 5
  • G3 IceHogs 4 @ Wolves 3 (3OT)

Manitoba Moose: Defeated two-seed Grand Rapids Griffins 3-2.

  • G1 Griffins 2 @ Moose 3
  • G2 Griffins 5 @ Moose 1
  • G3 Moose 6 @ Griffins 3
  • G4 Moose 0 @ Griffins 3
  • G5 Moose 5 @ Griffins 1

Series Schedule:

Game 1 – Friday, May 4 – Manitoba at ROCKFORD 7 p.m. CT

Game 2 – Saturday, May 5 – Manitoba at ROCKFORD 4 p.m. CT

Game 3 – Wednesday, May 9 – Rockford at MANITOBA 7 p.m. CT

Game 4 – Friday, May 11 – Rockford at MANITOBA 7 p.m. CT

*Game 5 – Saturday, May 12 – Rockford at MANITOBA 6 p.m. CT

*Game 6 – Tuesday, May 15  – Manitoba at ROCKFORD 7 p.m. CT

*Game 7 – Wednesday, May 16 – Manitoba at ROCKFORD 7 p.m. CT

*=> If Necessary

Season Series Recap:

These two teams did battle just four times in the 2017-18 season, splitting the games, and with each team losing their two homme games. Manitoba won two of the games, one in overtime, while Rockford’s two wins all came in regulation. Only one game took place in the first half of the season while the Moose were rolling over every team they faced, and it saw the Moose handily down the IceHogs 8-1 in Rockford on November 28, 2017.

The IceHogs were led offensively by Adam Clendening, who has six points (1G, 5A) in three games against the Moose, while Chris DiDomenico has six points as well against them in three games, two of which he was wearing an IceHogs in (1G, 3A). Rockford’s leading goal scorer against Manitoba has been Tyler Sikura who posted three goals in his four games versus this opponent. Delia saw the Moose twice, going 1-0-1 with a 2.95 goals against average and 0.929 save percentage.

The Moose, on the other hand, have just one player with six points (Brendan Lemieux 2G, 4A), but have six players with two or more goals against the Moose. Rockford does catch a break, however, as Niku (5A, 4 GP) and Jack Roslovic (2A, 1GP) are both with the Winnipeg Jets for their Stanley Cup run. Eric Comrie, the Moose starting netminder in the playoffs, won the one game he saw the IceHogs in, posting a 2.91 GAA and 0.925 SV%.

How Manitoba Wins:

First and foremost, they need to stop the red hot IceHogs power play. After being one of the worst in the league in the regular season, it clicked along at an impressive 38.9% against the Chicago Wolves, scoring seven times on 18 chances. Manitoba’s penalty kill was four for 19 in the first round, and the Moose spread out those 19 penalties over five games while the IceHogs conned the Wolves into taking 18 in just three. Therefore, the Moose also need to stop themselves from being goaded into taking as many penalties as the IceHogs were able to get the Wolves to do.

They also need to continuously find the back of the net. Goals against Delia were very spare for the Wolves, while two of Manitoba’s three victories against the Griffins in the first round were games in which they won by three and then by four. In games in which they were unable to score more than one goal, they lost both of them.

Manitoba also needs Comrie in his best form. In his five games played, the netminder was pulled once. He allowed 13 goals in 277:04 minutes, posting a 2.82 GAA and 0.922 SV%. To beat Delia, who has been absolutely stellar in the playoffs, they will need Comrie in his best shape to do battle and potentially steal a game or two against Delia.

The Moose also need Lemieux and Michael Spacek to stay out of the box. Lemieux had two goals and two assists in the opening round, while Spacek had one goal and two assists, but the two were also in the box for 18 and 20 minutes, respectively. In order for the Moose stand a chance of beating Delia early and open, they need their biggest weapons to be on the ice as much as possible.

How Rockford Wins:

Collin Delia and the power play. Really, for Rockford it is that simple. Their power play clicked along at an impressive 38.9% over three games, capitalizing on seven out of 18 chances. Not only was Rockford able to successfully take advantage time and time again on the power play, it also was able to force the Wolves into continuously taking penalties at inopportune times. If this IceHogs team is able to replicate this moving forward in the Calder Cup Playoffs, then it could potentially be the team to beat.

In three games played, Delia posted an impressive 1.52 GAA and 0.949 SV% against a Wolves team which outshot his own in the first two games. With Delia and Comrie in net, the difference maker in the series could very well be its goaltending, and Rockford will need Delia almost perfect to stand a chance against the Moose top line.
However, the Rockford counter of DiDomenico and Clendening is a force to be reckoned with, as each posted five points (2G, 3A and 1G, 4 A, respectively) in the opening round. They will need to continue to have big games, and need Sikura to step up, to counter the high-flying, high-scoring Moose offensive. Unlike Chicago, Manitoba does have the muscle to pair against Rockford, so the IceHogs will need to fight for every inch of space on the ice to move past the second round.

Be sure to follow @SinBinWolves on Twitter for coverage of this second round series as it unfolds, and @SinBinNews for all postseason minor league hockey coverage.

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