As far as kicking off a new season goes, you would be hard pressed to find a more successful start than the Checkers’ opening weekend.
With several new pieces fitting together, from new bench boss Mike Vellucci down to a group of heralded rookies, the Checkers expected there to be something of an adjustment period as they jumped into their regular season slate.
“Early on in that first game, it took a while for everyone to get comfortable with each other and get into a rhythm,” said Vellucci. “[Hartford] scored a real quick goal and it just took us a while to get in a rhythm. We hadn’t played together since a lot of those guys didn’t play in the preseason.”
Fortunately for the Checkers, that adjustment period was brief.
“Once we started getting rolling there and then into the second game, everyone was comfortable with their linemates and how we were playing,” said Vellucci. “They started playing well and doing some good things.”
A key indicator of that meshing was the way the team responded when faced with adversity. The Checkers fell behind by two goals on two different occasions in Friday’s contest and trailed for a chunk of Saturday’s as well, both tough positions to be in for a team that had only recently come together as a whole.
“Early on I don’t think you have the ultimate confidence,” said Vellucci. “We just stuck with the game plan. I talked to them and my point was that we need to stay positive and keep doing the things that make us successful.”
Setting a precedent early on in the season for how to handle those tough situations is a key tool moving forward, and Vellucci really pushed that mindset on his team.
“My job is to keep them positive,” he said. “We’ll score goals. We had a couple power plays in the second game where we had great chances to score but guys were getting frustrated because we didn’t score. You can’t get down on each other and you have to stay positive. I told them if you get chances you’re going to score eventually and we did.”
And as we now know, that worked for the Checkers, who erased all deficits and came out of the weekend with four points.
“I think we all just stayed together,” said Warren Foegele. “This is a pretty close group it seems like, so no one is getting down or putting other people down. It’s just staying positive and knowing that we can do it.”
A big part of both Charlotte wins was the stellar play of Foegele, whose four goals in two games earned him AHL Player of the Week honors.
“He was great,” said Vellucci. “Two shortys in the second game, that’s pretty remarkable. Warren was in the right spots at the right times, but he worked to get in those spots.”
The 21-year-old Foegele, playing in his first two contests as a pro, wasn’t shaken by the big stage.
“Not too much jitters, I just treated it like a normal game,” said Foegele. “I find if I get too excited or whatever I don’t succeed. I had my linemates to help me and they helped me adjust to the game.”
Foegele lined up on the wing alongside Clark Bishop and Patrick Brown for both tilts, and the trio did damage. Aside from the rookie’s four tallies, Brown finished the weekend with a pair of assists and a plus-three rating and Bishop added a helper for himself.
“That whole line played great,” said Vellucci. “Brownie had a bunch of chances, Bish played really well. What they do is they skate, they compete, they outwork the opponent and goals are going to come from that.”
While Foegele ended up with the hardware for his efforts, he is quick to extend credit to Brown and Bishop.
“We had a hard forecheck and were working hard and I just found some lucky bounces for myself,” said Foegele. “I had some great passes from my linemates and I think as a line we did really well and that contributed to my individual success.”
The trio is listed on paper as the Checkers’ fourth line, but Vellucci has stated proudly over the last few weeks his trust in all four of his lines against any opponent. This weekend proved him right in that trust.
“I think for us it’s just work hard, be reliable and contribute as much as you can,” said Foegele of his line. “We just have to keep it simple.”
Vellucci kept all of his forward lines together for both road games, and by the looks of the final product, that could be the way things stay.
“Chemistry-wise, when you win everyone gets along with their linemates,” said Vellucci. “I don’t like to change lines if I don’t have to. But if it’s not going well we will. Those two games we were trying to get chemistry from everybody.”
The coaching staff will now take in another week of work as they prepare for this weekend’s home opener against Bridgeport, hoping to build off a successful first week.
“Not too many highs, not too many lows,” said Vellucci. “Just keep an even keel. It’ll be a tough matchup for us but we have to be ready to go. Play our style which is puck speed, foot speed and competing as hard as we can.”