Contrary to a few practices in March that saw the team only able to dress 15 skaters due to injuries and call-ups, things have now gotten so crowded in Charlotte that the team has split its practices into two groups. On Tuesday, those appeared to be divided into those likely to play Wednesday’s crucial Game 3 against Oklahoma City and those who will watch from the stands.
Even if that’s the case, those groups could easily change over time.
“We’ve still got some guys (injured), but over the last few months if you were healthy you were playing,” said Daniels. “Now we’ve got some options. If you play well you’ll stay in, and if you’re not we’ll make a change.”
Tuesday’s smaller group included forwards Matt Beca, Sean Dolan and David Marshall, all of whom played in Game 2. Beca and Marshall had been mainstays in the team’s lineup for much of the last two months, while Dolan had just returned from injury to open the scoring on Saturday. Late-season junior and college hockey additions Austin Levi, Brock McGinn and Brendan Woods rounded out that group along with injured defenseman Brendon Nash.
Sheer numbers had a lot to do with the likely changes suggested by those groupings, with Nicolas Blanchard, Jared Staal and Tim Wallace all returning from the NHL on Sunday. All three were among the 12 forwards to take place in the larger group session, suggesting they will play Wednesday and immediately try to provide the kind of grit that Daniels felt was lacking over the weekend split in Oklahoma City.
“That’s my game,” said Blanchard, the team’s all-time penalty minutes leader who scored a series-winning, overtime goal in the first round two seasons ago. “I know I’m going to be physical tomorrow, but I think everyone can be more physical. It’s that commitment, and that’s what we’re going to have to beat this team.”
Blanchard, a 25-year-old who has served as an alternate captain for the last several seasons, should return with some confidence after his first-ever NHL stint with Carolina to close the season. While there, he did much of the same things he’s done over 439 career AHL contests, including fights in his first three games.
“I wasn’t looking for it,” said Blanchard of those altercations. “The way I play the game is with a lot of emotion, and it happens.”
On defense, Beau Schmitz, who played Game 1 but was replaced by rookie Danny Biega in Game 2, could be the only chance for a change. However, All-Star Michal Jordan can’t be ruled out, as he skated in the larger session without limitations. With John Muse not backing up either of the first two games and not skating with the team to begin this week, goaltending is down to Rob Madore and Mike Murphy.
On one hand, the increased competition should be a good thing for the team’s motivation. On the other, with Wednesday’s game guaranteed to push one team to the brink of elimination in the best-of-five series, they shouldn’t need any extra push.
“This is definitely one of those games we want, and we want it bad,” said center Riley Nash. “We’re at home now in front of our home fans. This is a really big game, and I think both teams know that.”
“You shouldn’t lay off the gas at all just because you’re at home,” said Wallace. “It’s actually the opposite. You want to come out hard, get in the o-zone, hopefully get the crowd into it and go from there.”