The loss of standout rookie defenseman Danny Biega on Thursday marked the fourth injury the team has encountered since the first of the month – all of which appear significant. The team was already playing without fellow blueliner Rasmus Rissanen, injured during a fight last week, and forwards Sean Dolan and Jared Staal, none of which appear particularly close to being able to practice with the team.
Though coaches had counted on Dolan and Staal to play important depth roles on the team’s fourth line and kill penalties, the larger void is on defense, where Biega and Rissanen formed Charlotte’s top pairing as recently as one week ago. According to Daniels, both will be out for “weeks,” leading the team to begin the search for something resembling a suitable replacement for a longer period of time.
“We’ll see what’s out there first, but we need a guy to play some big minutes,” said Daniels, whose team resumes play at home against the Norfolk Admirals this Sunday. “We lose two of our top-four defensemen, and those are tough to find.”
With rookie Austin Levi, the only defenseman at the ECHL level currently under contract with Carolina or Charlotte, perhaps not yet ready to resume that kind of responsibility, the dream scenario would be finding someone along the lines of Bobby Raymond, who joined the team on a tryout contract one year ago this month and never looked back. Of course, Raymond has since moved on to play in the German league and was only available last season because the NHL’s lockout had limited the AHL opportunity he clearly deserved.
Options now would include finding a similar free agent, hoping to get some help from Carolina – Brett Bellemore’s seemingly imminent return would give the team seven healthy defensemen – or try to find help via trade, a route they used to land Philippe Cornet when in need of an experienced forward.
Whatever they choose, the Checkers may be able to take some comfort in the fact that, if there was ever a “good” time for something like this to happen, that may be now. After reeling off two consecutive wins for the first time in over two months – dramatic, late victories at that – they’ve seem to have discovered the kind of swagger that can help them overcome such obstacles.
“I think we’re stronger mentally,” said Daniels, who saw the Checkers score late goals that were disallowed only to score even later goals in back-to-back wins over San Antonio on Tuesday and Thursday. “We went through some tough things, and right now shows that we’ve learned from them.”
While Daniels said coaches could see things turning in a positive direction as the team was at least able to slide a franchise-record losing streak into a pattern of alternating victories and defeats, these last two wins, in which winning goals came with six minutes left and 7.3 seconds left, could be the springboard to something more. The buzz after Thursday’s game and even Friday’s practice was noticeably greater than at any other point this season.
“I think you need something to kickstart it,” said Chris Terry, who had two points, including the winning goal, in the final 70 seconds of Thursday’s comeback. “Putting these two wins together, it’s been a while since we did that, that’s going to build confidence and the team will benefit from that.”
“You need wins like (Thursday) to keep the excitement for the guys coming to the rink ready to go,” said Daniels.
Leadership from veteran players has helped in that regard, with Terry and Zach Boychuk having led the way offensively for quite some time. Boychuk has 13 points (8g, 5a) in his last 12 games, while Terry has nine (4g, 5a) in his last seven.
“It’s part of their role to be factors in games,” said Daniels, who had challenged both players, among others, to do exactly that around the time that their breakouts began. “The message to them is that I don’t expect them to score every game, but they’ve got to be a factor and be a positive in the game.
“Chucky is a lot more involved than he was a month ago and Chris is coming around with not cheating as much on offense and trying to play with more structure to his game. I think when they do that, they’re skilled enough to get plenty of chances. They’ve just got to make sure those good habits start down here.”
Those habits will be key in helping those two players – two of three players on the Checkers’ current roster, along with linemate Brett Sutter, that have played an NHL game this season – get back to Carolina.
“The first few games back here and the last few games up top didn’t go my way and I started to lose some confidence,” said Terry, who went scoreless but did notch two shootout goals during a seven-game stint with the Hurricanes in November. “It’s a combination of not getting any breaks like a goal or an assist or something that’s along my game. Obviously my minutes dropped near the end, which was frustrating, but you have to respect it and work extra hard to get back up there.”
Boychuk’s stint only lasted one game, but he did earn an assist and hasn’t missed a beat since his return. He’s now the AHL leader with eight power-play goals, not including one that did not count due to incidental contact with the goaltender on Tuesday.
“I think every coach deals with the disappointment here where you don’t get called up or you get sent down,” said Daniels. “The message is to keep working and improve yourself down here and earn that call again, and right now they’re doing that.”