For the first time in franchise history, the Rockford IceHogs have advanced to the Western Conference Final and have done so by winning seven straight, sweeping the Chicago Wolves in three games then winning all four against the Manitoba Moose.
A big reason for that has been the performance of Collin Delia, who's posted a 1.64 goals against average and .948 save percentage. His current seven-game winning streak is the third-longest by a rookie goaltender in the AHL playoffs since 2006; only Michal Neuvirth (eight games in 2010 with Hershey) and Pekka Rinne (nine games in 2006 with Milwaukee) have exceeded that.
Rockford's goaltending coach Peter Aubry has seen Delia's development first-hand, and recognizes a trait in the 23-year-old that all great goaltenders must have: mental toughness.
"We talk about doing the same things every day," Aubry told NBC Sports Chicago. "One of the things that is great for me right now, whether I'm watching him in Game 4 against Manitoba or at practice this morning, he looks the same. The jerseys are different, but the puck's the same, he's handling the situation the same way and it just shows me that his habits are so strong.
"He's preparing before practice, for games, his body moves a certain way and then yeah, if he does face some adversity whether he's not feeling well, just gives up a goal or gets speared, whatever, it's no big deal. He just gets right back into the routine, right into the groove. He's done a great job with that. Don't let him kid you, he's got a pretty good demeanor himself."
A majority of that comes from within. The other part is having good structure around you, and Delia thinks the world of Aubry and the role he's had in his development.
"Geez, where do I start?" Delia said when asked about Aubry's impact. "Just to be in contact with him every day in a goalie coach is a tremendous asset for any young goalie, older goalie, it doesn't matter. The attention to detail that he's made me aware of throughout the year, it's really helped take my game to a different level. I don't think I'd be where I am without his help."
Blackhawks senior director of minor league affiliations Mark Bernard has seen the same thing as Aubry in regards to Delia's progression, and what's allowed him to be so successful over the course of the season and especially in the playoffs.
"For me it's his mental strength," Bernard said. "He hasn't had an easy year. Peter Aubry and myself sat with him early in the season, explained a plan for him that he was probably going to practice here in Rockford quite a bit, Monday to Friday, working with Peter Aubry. We wanted him facing American Hockey League shots and at the same time we wanted him playing games. So we wanted him to go down to Indy [Fuel] to play some games, which he did, and he handled it like a pro.
"He really took over our net on December 28th when Jeff Glass was recalled to Chicago and J-F Berube was injured. We went into Iowa with one game of experience in the net with him and Matt Tomkins, both of them handled it extremely well and Collin has just continued to get better and develop and his mental strength for me has really shown through."
What's even more impressive about Delia and where he's at in his development is the fact he's only 23 years old and went undrafted. Sometimes it's not about technique with goalies and more about who's got the mental edge.
In that sense, Delia might be ahead of the curve and his ceiling is whatever he makes it out to be.
"It's exciting when we talk about the possibilities, no question," Aubry said of Delia's upside. "You don't want to get too far ahead, but I think it's really important to have a vision of greater and bigger things. All these players need that. You need to think about that and visualize that and what that'd be like. I get excited when you ask me what his upside is, so I think that's probably pretty telling.
"I do know looking at his path and background ... there are other players who are at that age maybe with better backgrounds and you would seem to think that because he didn't always have the best in some situations that there's even more upside and more growth to take place. I'm just really excited that we have him as part of the Blackhawk organization."
So can Delia be a candidate — or even the frontrunner — to serve as Corey Crawford's backup with the Blackhawks next season?
"Why not?" Bernard said. "You know, why not? That's what training camp is for. He's proven this year that he's a quality netminder, he's someone in our organization [who's] a high-level prospect for us and the more he plays at this level, the more experience he gains ... he's playing in high-level pressure games here and he's proven himself.
"So going into training camp next year, he's got just as much of a chance as anybody. It's going to be interesting when camp opens, I think those things will be determined through the exhibition games and Stan [Bowman] and Joel [Quenneville] will have some tough decisions."
Here are nine other takeaways from Rockford:
2. How important Jeff Glass has been to Delia's growth
One of the best stories in hockey this season was Glass making his NHL debut at 32 years old after grinding away for a decade just about everywhere else. He appeared in 15 games for the Blackhawks, and held his own when Crawford was out before getting sent back to Rockford.
It would have been easy to have a negative attitude about it, but that's the last thing you'll hear about Glass' character and the value he brings inside the locker room.
"He's an open book," Delia said of Glass. "I can go talk to him about anything. He's literally the best teammate I've ever had. He's just very positive, anything you want to talk about he's there 24/7, so I can't thank him enough. He's had a tremendous impact on the younger guys in the room and they kind of see him as that calming presence, someone to turn to when maybe we don't know what to do. He's always there to right the ship."
And it's not just teammates who feel the same way, either.
"Jeff has been a great mentor for Collin during this ordeal," Bernard said. "It's all new to him. Jeff has been through it. Jeff is another guy that, is an older guy in our locker room that's been a total professional and has been great with Collin, helped him along the way."
3. Which NHL goaltenders does Delia study?
Final note on Delia: Sometimes you can learn a lot about a player when you find out who they study and try modeling their game after. I asked Delia about this and he said he doesn't key in on one specific goalie.
"I think I take tendencies and good habits from a bunch of different goalies around the NHL and AHL," he said.
When chatting with Aubry, some names he threw out of NHL goaltenders he and Delia pull files on are Sergei Bobrovksy, Marc-Andre Fleury, Jonathan Quick and Tuuka Rask, taking some qualities from each of them to incorporate in Delia's.
4. Grading Jeremy Colliton's first season as IceHogs head coach
It's easy to see why the Blackhawks hired Colliton to coach their AHL team. He's only 33 years old, but exudes supreme confidence in himself and what he's preaching and that filters around the room, from players to coaches to the front office.
"Somewhat stoic, if I can stay that," Delia said, describing Colliton. "Calmness. Very cerebral individual and it kind of helps everyone rationalize the game a little more clearly when he has that presence in the locker room. He's never just shouting or yelling. The message is conveyed in a very deliberate, well-thought out manner and I think that goes along with the rest of the staff."
If we're putting a grade on Year 1?
"An A-plus," Bernard said. "Jeremy has a great way of communicating with the players, he's very prepared, he has a great demeanor about him, he's very calm. He's handled this group fantastic right from Day 1 knowing we were going to have a very young team here, a lot like the teams he had in Mora over in Sweden: young players that he had to develop and turn them into winners and he's done that here, along with his staff of Sheldon [Brookbank] and Derek [King] and Peter Aubry and Adam Gill, they've all done a fantastic job."
5. Importance of zone entries
One of the first things the IceHogs worked on during Wednesday's practice is zone entries on the power play. It's one of the main reasons why they're the top-ranked unit in the playoffs, converting on 15 of 40 attempts for a 37.5 percent success rate.
"We want to get in our setup for sure," Colliton said. "The best thing you can do is just win the faceoff, but I think puck recoveries are huge and then, yeah, obviously when you do have to break out, you want to enter clean, get it under control again. We've done a good job of adapting to what's been given to us.
"We've got an extra guy, but we can't just decide we're going to do this option over and over again. We've got to react to what the killers are taking away and I think our guys are doing a good job of adapting on the fly. We don't want to have to wait until the power play is over to adjust, we've got to adjust while we're on the ice."
The Blackhawks could certainly learn something from them after finishing the season with the fourth-worst power play (16.0 percent), with entries being a problem all year long.
6. Gustav Forsling staying positive
This was probably the season Forsling expected to secure a full-time spot with the Blackhawks, and for a while it appeared he did that. He and Jan Rutta were easily the team's best pairing for the first month of the season.
But like last season around the same time, Forsling was assigned to Rockford for the second half of the year to continue developing his all-around game rather than being forced to simplify it in the NHL.
"I just tried to think positive and do as best as I can down here and try to get back up as fast as possible," Forsling told NBC Sports Chicago. "I'm still very young, I just wanted to keep developing down here. I know what it takes to be up there, I have to be more reliable every night.
"They want me to play my game and sometimes it's a good thing to get sent down to get your confidence back and keep playing your game. I think I've been more stable defensively. I think I've taken steps and I think they can trust me back there, so it feels good."
Said Bernard: "[Forsling] has played fantastic for us. Sometimes we forget he's still just 21 years old. If you look around the National Hockey League, there's not a lot of 21-year-olds playing as defensemen, so we're thrilled with his development and his progress. He continues to get better and just like our other players, playing in these high-level games is only going to benefit him. We're very happy with the progression he's made."
7. Victor Ejdsell adapting quickly
It's been a pretty crazy past three months for Ejdsell. He was traded to Chicago, wrapped up his season in the Swedish Hockey League, joined the Blackhawks for six games then hopped on with the IceHogs in the middle of a playoff push for five games and has emerged as one of the leading scorers with eight points (five goals, three assists) in seven postseason games.
Keep in mind, he's doing this while adjusting to the North American style of hockey.
"Terrific shot," Bernard said of the 22-year-old forward. "High, high hockey IQ. The pace of his game as we continue to play has continued to get better and better, I think that's just adapting to the smaller ice surface where things happen a little quicker, he has to make his decisions a little faster. But very high hockey IQ, great release and we're glad he's on our side right now."
Getting adapted to the smaller rink will come in time. At 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, the Blackhawks wanted him to focus on what he can improve physically to prepare himself for the NHL in general.
"When I was up with the Blackhawks we had a meeting after the season ended and they told me to go home this summer, work on your speed and strength and we'll see where it goes," Ejdsell told NBC Sports Chicago. "I've been doing that my whole life, but it takes a while to grow into your body when you're this big but it's getting there."
8. Cody Franson doesn't expect to return to Blackhawks next season
Franson inked a professional tryout contract with the Blackhawks in September and turned it into a one-year deal a month later, despite having other offers on the table. He felt this was the right opportunity, with Chicago's need for depth defensemen.
He started out just fine, recording seven points (one goal, six assists) in 19 games while logging top-four minutes and quarterbacking the power play. When he was on the ice at 5-on-5, the Blackhawks controlled 58.4 percent of the shot attempts. Granted, his offensize zone faceoff percentage was at 64.5 but the quality of competition he was out against wasn't bad. It's not like he was completely sheltered.
But then he sustained an upper-body injury in December that sidelined him for three weeks and saw others jump his spot in the lineup, and that was the end of it. It was difficult for Franson to swallow.
Now, he's one of the veterans in a young IceHogs locker room four wins away from the Calder Cup Final. He also leads the team with four power-play goals this postseason, backing up his presence both on the ice and off of it.
Franson deserves a real chance to start full-time on somebody's blue line next season. But he doesn't expect that to be in Chicago.
"I'm quite certain I won't be back next year," Franson told NBC Sports Chicago. "This year obviously didn't go the way that I envisioned it going and they're in a situation with their group right now where they're in kind of a transitional period.
"They've got some young guys that started to get some experience this year and they've got all those guys signed up for next year, so I'll be looking for something different I think unless something changes. Obviously it's not like my door's closed, but I don't see it going that way."
9. John Hayden's got eyes on the prize
The IceHogs have a handful of guys that could probably be playing in the NHL right now. But if there's one thing they all have in common, it's that they've all made sacrifices and banded together to make a push at winning it all.
There's no better example of that than Hayden, who almost certainly knows he has what it takes to be a full-time NHL player but has accepted a bottom six role at times during Rockford's run to do what's best for the club.
"In hindsight, this was great for me and great for my development," Hayden told NBC Sports Chicago. "I came down here, embraced the role I was given and all the coaches and players have done a great job, and the team really came together. It's our goal is to win the Calder Cup."
10. Sizing up Texas
Alright, now that we've got all that out of the way, let's look ahead to the task at hand. The two hottest teams in the AHL are going head-to-head here with Rockford a perfect 7-0 in these playoffs and Texas 7-2.
Look for the difference to come on special teams. The IceHogs rank first in power play percentage (37.5) and second in penalty kill percentage (92.9) this postseason while the Stars rank 10th in power play percentage (17.2) and sixth in penalty kill percentage (85.7).
"I think it'll be a fast series," Tyler Sikura said. "They've got a lot of speed, I remember that from the time that we played them. They play hard and they've got some skill. I think they're built similarly to us in that sense, so it's going to be a fast series. I'm not sure if it's going to be high-scoring, low-scoring, whatever. It might be a game-to-game kind of thing."