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Young Checkers Defensemen Get Trial by Fire

Keegan Lowe
A young Checkers defense hit by injuries already had one big test last week. Given the team’s upcoming schedule, things aren’t about to get much easier.

Playing without the injured Rasmus Rissanen and Danny Biega – two of the team’s top-four defensemen – on Sunday, the Checkers took the good with the bad in a 4-3 overtime victory. In feeling that his team won despite being outplayed by the Norfolk Admirals, coach Jeff Daniels admitted that the adjustment had its hiccups, which were not entirely unexpected.

Hosting a rematch against a more rested Norfolk team on Thursday should be a tougher challenge, but it won’t end there. Two additional games against the Toronto Marlies, arguably the most physical team they’ve faced this season, as part of a three-in-three set this weekend will make it three games in 41 hours.

Austin Levi
For inexperienced players who already facing a potential shock to the system in terms of a sudden increase in minutes played, it would be tough to pack more ice time into a shorter time period. However, the trio of Austin Levi, Keegan Lowe and Beau Schmitz, who up until recently were playing in a different league, playing a lesser role and sometimes not playing at all, are expected to shoulder the load.

“If you talk to them, I kind of lay it all on the line early in the season about my expectations, and I have high expectations,” said Checkers assistant coach Geordie Kinnear, who works with the team’s defense. “If they’re in the lineup, I expect them to play a certain way and demand that of them whether they’re young or old. My expectation is that they make the most of it.”

Balancing out the younger trio are veterans Matt Corrente, Mark Flood and Michal Jordan, all important contributors who bring something different to the table. As Daniels first alluded to when disclosing that Biega and Rissanen would be out for several weeks, the ideal solution could be to add another experienced player accustomed to logging heavy ice time, but those don’t exactly grow on trees.

Instead, it’s on the younger players to make that adjustment.

“I was used to being a go-to guy all the time in junior, but for the better part of this year I’ve just been getting my feet wet in the league in that five-six role,” said Lowe, who has played all 26 games as a rookie this season. “The biggest adjustment is getting used to the minutes again and bringing that consistent effort every shift, because when you’re out there that much and against better players, you’ve got to be reliable.”

Like Schmitz, who has played a total of 33 AHL games over the course of his first two pro seasons and got the Checkers on the board with a power-play goal on Sunday, Lowe has at least been around the team. That couldn’t be said of Levi, a 21-year-old who made his AHL debut in the team’s last game against Norfolk.

“There’s a little bit of pressure, definitely, but I take that in stride and I’m excited about the opportunity,” said Levi, who started his rookie campaign with the ECHL’s Florida Everblades before the Checkers handed him his first recall last week. “I’ve just got to gain some confidence and play like I know I can.”

“Keegan and Beau know what Geordie wants them to do in the d-zone and Austin kind of got thrown in to the fire, but the message for all three is really just to keep it simple and play their game,” said Daniels. “We don’t need them to go end-to-end.”

As far as having to learn on the fly during the upcoming three-in-three, a tough stretch for any player, both Daniels and Kinnear said they would take each game as it comes. If nothing else, it’s an opportunity that could end up being a key point in each player’s development.

Even in a more limited role, Kinnear said that he had already seen Lowe take steps forward.

“I believe you have to play a certain way and Keegan’s picked that up,” he said. “He made mistakes early on, but what I like about him is that he admits them and learns from them, and that’s the most important thing.”

“There’s so much I’ve learned this year and so much I’ve improved on,” said Lowe, who began Sunday’s game on a pairing with Jordan, the team’s leader in terms of minutes played night in and night out. “The jump from junior to pro is a big step, and the things you thought you were exceptional at in junior you’re behind the pack at pro.”

Though, as of Wednesday, Biega had yet to return to the ice since his Dec. 12 injury, Rissanen has resumed practicing with the team but is not cleared for contact. Sean Dolan and Jared Staal have also skated, but all of that is a bit misleading with each player having suffered an upper-body injury that will still take some time to heal.

“The good thing about this is that they don’t have to sit around for weeks at a time,” said Daniels of his four injured players. “It’s a good thing, but they aren’t close.”
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.