Smith, Morin lead IceHogs to fourth straight win

645426.png

Smith, Morin lead IceHogs to fourth straight win

Just like that, the IceHogs and their Blackhawks prospects have erased any concern over their 0-3-0-1 start.

Sunday's 3-1 win over the San Antonio Rampage was their fourth straight and after managing just five goals in the first four games, Rockford has now scored 15 in their last four games.

Ben Smith opened the scoring with his second goal of the season less than two minutes in, but the Rampage tied it with less than five minutes to play in the opening frame. That was all San Antonio could muster against IceHogs goalie Carter Hutton, who made 23 saves.

Martin St. Pierre's second goal of the season proved to be the game-winner and highly-touted defenseman Adam Clendening scored his first goal in the third period.

Smith added an assist, Jeremy Morin had a pair of assists and Brandon Pirri continues to produce with an assist on Smith's goal.

The IceHogs are off until Friday when they host the Chicago Wolves.

Cubs invest in bullpen and sign Pedro Strop to contract extension

Cubs invest in bullpen and sign Pedro Strop to contract extension

MESA, Ariz. — The Cubs invested in their bullpen and clubhouse on Friday, finalizing an extension with Pedro Strop before the start of Cactus League games.

The Cubs and Strop's camp kept negotiating after avoiding an arbitration hearing with a $5.5 million settlement for 2017 before camp opened in Arizona.

Strop — one of the National League's best setup guys and most popular players in the clubhouse — will earn $5.85 million in 2018 instead of testing the free-agent market. The Cubs now hold a $6.25 million club option for 2019 (or a $500,000 buyout).

Nick Schmaltz gaining confidence, effectiveness with Blackhawks

Nick Schmaltz gaining confidence, effectiveness with Blackhawks

Nick Schmaltz's game has made tremendous strides since he came back from Rockford. He's has the puck more. He's playing with more confidence. He's recognizing when to hold onto the puck and when to give it up. 

Now to improve in one other category.

"I've been telling myself that for years now to shoot the puck and I still don't do it enough," Schmaltz said with a little smile. "Definitely shoot more and just play my game."

That, like everything else, will come with confidence more play but there's no doubt Schmaltz is making a bigger impact these past few weeks. Schmaltz celebrated his 21st birthday on Thursday with another multi-point night, this time a goal and an assist in the Blackhawks' 6-3 victory over the Arizona Coyotes. The rookie is brimming with confidence as part of the Blackhawks' surging top line with Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik and has nine points over his last seven games.

For Schmaltz, every lessoned learned this season, including the ones from Rockford, has been put to good use the past few weeks.

"We're just having the puck more. That's my game. I like to have the puck, hold onto it and make plays," Schmaltz said. "I'm making more plays off the rush, in the zone. I'm definitely more accustomed to playing this style and hopefully we can keep it going because I know that's how the Blackhawks have played in the past. And it only helps our team game when every line is playing well."

The Blackhawks have developed a better four-line rotation and a big part of that is the chemistry Schmaltz, Toews and Panik have formed on that top line. Panik said he's seen the change in Schmaltz lately.

"I think he just holds onto the puck more," Panik said. "He doesn't give it up quickly and that's what he's good at, just possession with the puck and making a space for him and he finds me or Toews."

[RELATED: Nick Schmaltz shines on 21st birthday]

Coach Joel Quenneville was particularly complimentary of Schmaltz's game in Minnesota, which featured a "spectacular" pass to Toews on what was the captain's second goal of the night. 

"The one thing we want him to do is play with the puck, play to his strengths and have it. Now he wants it," Quenneville said. "He had the puck a lot [on Thursday], like he did in Minnesota. I just think he's improved his pace and his strength in the puck area is coming along. For young guys, that's always an area where you get better over your first few years. But the quickness and confidence with the puck is definitely more noticeable."

Sure, Schmaltz should shoot more. In his time with the Blackhawks Schmaltz has had two or fewer shots in all but one game (Nov. 23 vs. the San Jose Sharks). When he has shot lately it's led to good results. Sometimes the decision to shoot is easy — please see the 2-on-1 with him and Toews to start Thursday's game — but the Blackhawks want to see him take a few more chances.

"You're a young guy and sometimes you feel the need to move the puck a little bit but he rolled that half wall early in the Minnesota game and we kept saying, ‘Shoot the puck, think shot, think shot,'" Quenneville said. "I think that will open up his other options and all of a sudden they're going to have to respect him coming out of those tight areas with a quick snap shot in that area. He can work and get better in that area knowing, get a little more comfortable with it, snapping it."

The Blackhawks have shown steady improvement this season. The same goes for Schmaltz. The start of the season was a little rough and not surprisingly so; the transition from college to pro isn't easy. But Schmaltz is now looking like he belongs here, and he wants to keep building.

"I feel I'm playing at a high level, where I need to be. But I can't get happy or complacent in my game," Schmaltz said. "I have to keep working and keep that level as high as possible."