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Notebook: Intensity Rising

It’s been a slow-building intensity in this first-round meeting of two of the league’s best-behaved teams, with each game reaching a new level. Now that the Barons are facing elimination in Friday’s Game 4, that should continue to be the case.

When the Checkers jumped out to an insurmountable 3-0 lead after just eight minutes on Wednesday, altercations following stoppages in play became more and more frequent. Most never got farther than the standard pushing and shoving, with the exception of a play late in the third period when Barons agitator Ben Eager unsuccessfully tried to goad Charlotte defensemen Brett Bellemore into a fight as the two became entangled in the corner.

Checkers vs. Oklahoma City
In that instance, Bellemore showed restraint, allowing him to draw a the first of two consecutive Oklahoma City penalties that the Checkers capitalized on to make it 5-1. Should things continue to escalate on Friday, Charlotte coach Jeff Daniels hopes his team will handle itself in the same way, even though they have the type of gritty, physical players that can answer those challenges.

“To be honest, we want to stay away from it,” said Daniels. “We took eight or nine penalties last game, which is too many. Some of them were on things that couldn’t be helped but there were some retaliatory things in there that we have to be smarter about.”

More notes heading into Game 4:

Special Teams

Charlotte gave up nine power plays on Wednesday, more than any other game over the course of the entire season. That included two separate two-man advantages, one of which the Barons scored on to make it 3-1 with less than a minute left in the first period and the other which the Checkers killed near the end of the second period to seriously dent any comeback hopes.

That performance, along with the team’s three power-play goals on seven chances, continued Charlotte’s special-teams dominance that it has enjoyed throughout the 11 total games it has played against Oklahoma City this season. The Checkers are now 17-for-55 on the power play (30.9 percent) and 44-for-49 on the penalty kill (89.8 percent) against the Barons.

While the Checkers have been good on special teams all season, the deepest lineup they’ve had since the end of the NHL’s lockout has allowed them to return players to well-defined roles rather than having to piece together units based on who was wasn’t injured or in the NHL.

“In my mind, we’ve got seven forwards that can play power play and we’ve only got time for six of them, and a lot of guys have played penalty kill over the course of the year,” said Daniels. “We’ve still got options in both places.”

Even with defensemen Marc-Andre Gragnani, Michal Jordan and Brendon Nash, all of whom would likely be seeing time on the power play if healthy, out of the lineup, the team has enough depth to cover, with forwards like Zac Dalpe and Chris Terry also capable of running the point.

Biega on the Board

In terms of defensemen filling in on special teams, the rookie duo of Danny Biega and Ryan Murphy has also featured, with Biega picking up his first professional point on the man advantage before adding a second assist at even strength on Wednesday.

After sitting out Game 1, Biega has turned in a pair of impressive performances in his next two games. Aside from what he’s been able to do on the ice, showing signs of being a two-way presence cable of being physical in his own end and leading rushes up ice to create scoring opportunities, one may not have expected this level of poise for a player who has now played just three professional games, including three pre-injury shifts in his March 13 debut.

Given what happened to him in his first game, he has not looked hesitant about jumping in to AHL postseason play after over a month on the sidelines.

“You can’t play scared out there because good things usually aren’t going to happen to you,” said Daniels. “He’s got a lot of confidence with the puck, he can skate and he’s got a good, heavy shot. I don’t think he’s going to be a No. 1 power-play, guy but he’s definitely capable of filling in on your No. 2.”

Fourth-Line Focus

The playoffs are about getting contributions from non-traditional sources, and the Checkers’ fourth line has certainly qualified.

Matt Marquardt and Jared Staal
That group, made up of any combination of Brody Sutter, Matt Marquardt, Jared Staal and Sean Dolan in the series’ first three games, has scored at least one goal in each contest. Sutter, who had six points (4g, 2a) in 27 career regular-season games at the AHL level, now has four (2g, 2a) in this postseason, tying him for second on the team in scoring and for first in the league among rookies.

Aside from finding the back of the net, as Sutter did for two goals in Game 1, including the overtime winner, and Dolan and Marquardt did to open the scoring in Games 2 and 3, respectively, players in that group have also formed an imposing physical presence. Of Wednesday’s group of Marquardt, Sutter and Staal, all three players were at or over 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds.

“You need other guys to step up, because the other team will obviously be paying more attention to your top lines,” said Daniels. “Oklahoma City has big defensemen and you want to work that puck down low and get chances off the cycle.”

That line’s performance has helped take some offensive pressure off of others. While Zach Boychuk and Chris Terry have been piling on points during the series, the Checkers have a combined zero points from Zac Dalpe and Brett Sutter, two of their top-four scorers from the regular season, and are no worse for the wear. Charlotte ranks tied for second in the AHL with an average of four goals per playoff game.

Raymond Piles on Points

Bobby Raymond entered the postseason as the Checkers’ highest-scoring defenseman, at least in terms of those available in the lineup.

Bobby Raymond
With Gragnani and Nash injured and Justin Faulk and Bobby Sanguinetti long gone for the NHL, Raymond, who joined the Checkers on an AHL contract midway through the season, has had to shoulder an increased load. With 10 points in his last nine games (2g, 8a), including an active five-game point streak, he’s doing so quite nicely.

After piling on the assists during his streak, he chipped in the Checkers’ fifth goal on Wednesday, a power-play tally on a well-placed shot from the left circle. As with many of his other points, it was the result of what is undoubtedly his best attribute.

“He’s such a good skater that he’s able to open lanes and get those pucks on net through traffic,” said Daniels. “He’s got a lot of confidence with the puck right now – there’s no panic out there.”

Though one of the elder statesmen on the team at age 27 – only forwards David Marshall and Tim Wallace are older – Raymond is just now making his mark as a full-time player at the AHL level, having played a career-high 44 games this season. He made a good early impression by becoming the first Checkers player to score back-to-back, game-winning goals in the teams’ three AHL seasons back in January, with the points now coming at a career clip when the games matter most.

“If you look at the last month and a half, he’s really stepped his game up,” said Daniels.
Paul Branecky
Author: Paul BraneckyEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
The Checkers' vice president of communications, Paul Branecky has been covering hockey in North Carolina since 2006, including five seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes.