Wednesday’s 5-2 loss in Norfolk was Charlotte’s second in as many games since it finally earned a victory over Rockford the previous Saturday. As was the case in its previous two losses, the score was tied 2-2 early in the third period before the opposing team pulled away.
“Like Sunday’s game I thought we played well going into the third, but we made more mistakes and they capitalized on them,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “We just can’t beat ourselves.”
“As a team we battled,” said newcomer Philippe Cornet. “If we can do the little things right we can turn it around. I think we have it in us. No one’s down about it and not wanting to come to the rink anymore. We’re treating each game like it’s a new season.”
The Checkers will have a friendly setup as they attempt to make up what has become a five-point gap between their current position of 14th place and the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Starting Saturday against Milwaukee and ending Dec. 21, they play 10 consecutive games at home, tying a franchise record.
Some news and notes heading into that stretch:
Goalie SituationThe rest of the roster hasn’t gone through a great deal of turnover to this point, but it seems like the Checkers have used a different goalie just about every week.
The carousel continued Tuesday when the team released Rick DiPietro from his tryout contract and brought Rob Madore, its playoff starter from last season, back into the fold on a similar deal. Although Mike Murphy’s injury will again keep him from playing this weekend, the Checkers once again have three goaltenders in Madore, Murphy and John Muse.
When Murphy’s return from Carolina gave the team three goalies for the first time all season, Daniels had said that the competition for the starting job would be open among them. Due to uncertainty regarding Murphy’s status and the fact that he has not played a game at any level since Oct. 20, that doesn’t seem to be as clear now.
“We’ll see,” said Daniels. “Murphy has to get healthy and prove himself, so we’ll see how it plays out.”
Given another short turnaround between games this weekend – a 7 p.m. start on Saturday and a 1:30 game on Sunday – there’s a good chance that both Muse and Madore will play. Muse has started 10 of a possible 15 games since becoming the first goalie from last season’s team to join this year’s edition, and although his numbers aren’t as pristine as when he opened the season with a team-record, 154-minute shutout streak prior to the start of the team’s major struggles, he’s remained a solid option.
“He’s been fine. He’s given us a chance to win,” said Daniels. “We went through games when we weren’t scoring goals, and I can’t fault him. It’s about us eliminating some mistakes in front.”
If Madore does indeed play for the Checkers this weekend, he would become the seventh goalie to do so, extending a franchise record. Speaking of Madore:
MADORE RETURNSBack in the ECHL with the Cincinnati Cyclones to start this season, Madore didn’t see a return to the Checkers coming, especially after things didn’t work out over the summer.
“I’ve only had one year pro, but I already know not to predict things,” he said. “I don’t worry about things I don’t control.
“After ever year you feel like you have things figured out and then something happens that you didn’t foresee. I’ve learned to approach every day the same no matter where I end up.”
Along those lines, Madore says he has no idea about whether he’ll have an opportunity to play, let alone work his way back to the starting job he left last season. Drawing on his experience from the preseason, in which he spent time with the NHL’s Florida Panthers and their AHL affiliate in San Antonio, he’ll worry about those things later.
“You don’t go into camp thinking you’re not good enough to make the team,” he said. “As a competitor, you don’t go in expecting to be the third-best guy. You go in trying to make the team, and if they tell you to go somewhere else then you go somewhere else.”
After getting into an NHL exhibition game with Florida, Madore may have had an opportunity to at least sign with San Antonio before the Panthers’ late signing of Tim Thomas, a fellow University of Vermont alumnus, pushed him further down the depth chart.
Madore did his best to turn a stroke of bad luck into a positive, sitting down with Thomas over dinner to “pick his brain” - one of a handful of recent learning opportunities.
“It’s good experience,” said Madore. “In three months I’ve seen all levels of hockey in North America. You get to see what makes players good at each level.”
With the way things worked out, Madore stuck to his ECHL deal with Cincinnati, making him available when the Checkers came calling.
“There aren’t a lot of guys who are sort of free agents that aren’t signed with an NHL club or an AHL club, and Rob was a guy we felt comfortable with based on what he did last year,” said Daniels.
CORNET’S CONTRIBUTIONSAnother player who hoped to be in the AHL much sooner is Cornet, who the Checkers acquired via trade with San Antonio last week. Though the 23-year-old doesn’t feel he played particularly well in Norfolk, he had three points (1g, 2a) in his first two games with the team and will be relied upon as an offensive contributor going forward.
After playing parts of the last two seasons in the ECHL since scoring 24 goals in an All-Star season with Oklahoma City in 2011-12 and making his NHL debut with Edmonton that year, it’s been a welcomed opportunity. He only played four games for the Rampage this season, recording one assist, before becoming teammates with Madore in Cincinnati.
“Signing this season with San Antonio, the last thing on my mind was going to the coast,” said Cornet, referring to the ECHL. “I think they ended up with more guys than they expected when they signed people in the summer and had a lot of two-way (contract) that they wanted to play first. I didn’t really get a shot, but it’s hard when there are so many players trying to get a job.”
The previous season, it was Oklahoma City’s addition of Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins during the NHL’s work stoppage that eliminated top-sox roles at the AHL level, relegating him to ECHL Stockton.
“I was coming off a good year and was ready to play a big role,” he said. “It was hard to take, and I wasn’t the happiest guy in the world. I didn’t want to be (in the ECHL) at first, but I figured if it was going to be for two or three months during the lockout I should try to do something about it.”
Since the lockout ended and he joined one of the Barons’ top lines with Mark Arcobello and Jonathan Cheechoo, Cornet has 37 points (16g, 21a) in his last 53 games. Daniels has already praised his experience, work along the offensive boards and willingness to score the gritty goals, things he already knew well from having watched Cornet play within the same division as the Checkers for the last two seasons. In fact, all three of Cornet’s AHL clubs currently call the West Division home.
“It’s funny how that worked out,” said Cornet. “Maybe it’s because they’re the teams that have seen me play most often.”
PENALTY-KILLING TROUBLEThe Checkers’ penalty kill has struggled for much of the season, including Wednesday, when it gave up two goals on five opportunities. That game marked the seventh time that Charlotte has given up multiple power-play goals in the same game, dropping it to 28th in the league at 76.7 percent.
On Wednesday’s winning goal, it took just 18 seconds for Norfolk to capitalize on a delay-of-game call against Brett Sutter.
“It’s just the little things like getting the puck out when we get it on our stick, blocking a shot or making better reads,” said Daniels. “Both goals on Wednesday were more of a system thing where we made bad reads, but a lot of these guys have gotten it done for us in the past so we’ll keep working on it.”
To that point, the struggles have been surprising given that the Checkers return many of the same players who contributed to the team’s third-place finish (86.5 percent) last season. Nicolas Blanchard, Sean Dolan, Brett Sutter and Chris Terry up front and Michal Jordan and Rasmus Rissanen have all been available for most, if not all, of the season to this point.
“We’ve just got to be more focused all game long,” said Blanchard. “In the past we were doing really good, and the main thing now is to kill those penalties near the end of the game and when the game is tied. I think we have to take it personally and have pride in that. We need to get back on the same page.”
“It’s a funny thing,” said Daniels. “We have guys that take pride in it and believe they can get it done, but they’re going to have to start doing that.”