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Notebook: Filling the Void

As is often the case, injuries in Carolina have resulted in some of the Checkers’ top players getting opportunities is the NHL, with the Checkers left to figure out the next step.

In less than two weeks since play resumed following the holiday break, Charlotte’s top two scorers, Zach Boychuk and Aaron Palushaj, have joined the Hurricanes, as has captain Brett Sutter. He wasn’t exactly a mainstay on the AHL squad, but Anton Khudobin, who played two games on a conditioning stint, has also moved on to the Hurricanes, where he’s started each of the last three games and has made a case to become the team's No. 1 option in the process.

All of that has left Charlotte a little thin, but it’s come at a relatively good time. The team is in the midst of one of the leanest portions of their schedule, with just two games taking place over a 13-day span that began on Saturday.

Zach Boychuk
“We’ve got days to see how it plays out,” said coach Jeff Daniels at Monday’s practice. “I’ll look around in case something’s needed, but I’ll wait and see.”

The Checkers were short two forwards as Monday’s skate due the recalls and Greg Nemisz coming down with an infection that Daniels hoped would only keep him out for a few days. Sean Dolan and Jared Staal will not be options a two-game trip to Oklahoma City on Friday and Saturday as they continue to deal with long-term injuries.

The good news is that Carolina could have a handful of players returning in time for Charlotte’s trip. Riley Nash and Jiri Tlusty traveled with the team for Tuesday’s game in Buffalo, while Eric Staal’s initial timetable put him close to a weekend return. Additionally, Elias Lindholm should return from the World Junior tournament, where he captured a silver medal with Sweden, with plenty of time to spare.

Barring additional problems that could arise in Carolina this week – the team also plays on Thursday and Friday – the chances of at least one of those players bumping a player to Charlotte seem good enough.

Some additional notes on the Checkers’ roster turnover:

GETTING OPPORTUNITIES

During Sunday’s game against Nashville, the Hurricanes used an all-Checkers fourth line of Boychuk, Sutter and Palushaj, which more than held its own with several good possession shifts in the offensive zone. Palushaj, who was making his Carolina debut but playing in his 67th NHL game, made a particularly positive impression with the energy and hard work down low that defined his last two weeks in Charlotte, where he scored 14 points in his last 11 games.

Though it’s hard to argue the credentials of any of those players – Boychuk was the hottest goal scorer in the AHL at the time of his Dec. 27 recall and Sutter has put in his typically strong performances to make himself the top center available for recall – it’s easy to notice one omission.

Chris Terry was the last forward cut from Carolina and the first one to earn a recall this season but has now been passed over on four consecutive occasions, with Boychuk also getting a one-game stint on Dec. 6. With 16 points in his last 16 games, it’s not as though he hasn’t been productive.

Daniels’ current message to Terry?

“Just control what you can control,” he said. “Some of it has been circumstance with position sometimes. Chucky went up and played real well for one game and got sent down right after (in early December). Sometimes it’s a numbers game. He’ll get another opportunity soon.”

FILLING THE VOID

The Checkers have yet to play a game without Palushaj, but the offense hasn’t struggled as much as one may have expected given the earlier losses of Boychuk and Sutter, two thirds of the team’s first line for most of December. In fact, it’s been more consistent than it has all season, scoring at least three goals in each of its last five games, the first time it’s done that since early last season when the NHL’s lockout gave provided an unprecedented amount of firepower.

A.J. Jenks
Helping the team stay the course have been contributions from throughout the lineup, whether it be Terry shouldering more of the load himself, Nicolas Blanchard chipping in six points in his last eight games or new players hitting their stride.

“It’s been about committee and other guys are taking advantage of an opportunity, no different than those guys going up top,” said Daniels.

In terms of new additions, Daniels said that Philippe Cornet has been playing his best hockey since his acquisition from San Antonio. More recently, former Checkers A.J. Jenks and Matthew Pistilli, signed to pro tryout contracts from the Florida Everblades, have shown signs of joining John Muse as players who had to go to the ECHL before forcing their way back on the team in more of a permanent role.

“I’ve seen a lot of improvement,” said Daniels of Jenks and Pistilli’s play this season compared to last. “A lot of it is the confidence. Both guys went (to the ECHL) and played a lot and in different roles so they feel good about their game, and when they come up here they have a lot of confidence and that shows in their play.

Since his recall, Jenks has gradually climbed from the fourth line to the first in the Checkers’ most recent game against Texas, also receiving time on the power play and penalty kill. He has assists in back-to-back games.

“I feel pretty good,” said Jenks, who had 12 points in 39 previous games with Charlotte over the previous two seasons. “The best part is the seamless adjustment of playing here last year with a lot of familiar faces, being familiar with the systems and the coaching staff.”

Jenks’ first-line promotion came at the immediate expense of Victor Rask, who has just nine points in his last 25 games, all assists, after starting the season with eight (3g, 5a) in his first nine.

“Even though he’s not scoring as much as he’d like, he’s still a first-year player and he’s been a real good player for us all year,” said Daniels of Rask. “Right away the expectations were a lot higher based on who he was playing with, but I think he’s had a real good first half of the rookie season. Obviously he wants to score more and has the ability to score more, but overall he’s been real good.”

Compared to Jenks, Pistilli took a longer road back, playing most of the last two seasons in the ECHL, where he was the league’s scoring leader with 36 points in 28 prior to joining the Checkers. He scored two goals on Friday to earn first-star honors against Texas.

“One thing I did this summer was really work hard to change my diet a lot from what it was back then,” said Pistilli, 25, who played three seasons with the Hurricanes’ AHL affiliate from 2009-2012. “I felt like it paid off a lot this year, though I wish I would have done it a little earlier in my career. You learn over time, and hopefully I can keep going how I am right now because I’m pretty happy with the result.

“I’m at over 300 pro games right now so I’m starting to see a lot of hockey and starting to understand the game a lot more. I remember back in the day (Checkers assistant coach) Geordie Kinnear told me that some guys get it right away, some guys after a year, some guys after three or four years. It took me three or four years to get it and finally plant my feet and feel comfortable. I feel like I can contribute a lot at this level.”

“Pistilli is a guy that can score goals,” said Daniels. “He’s got great hands around the net. It’s taken some time to have that confidence at this level but he’s showing that right now.”

While getting those contributions, Daniels also feels that the team’s overall approach has helped.

“It’s not trying to complicate things,” said Daniels. “I think we have a better understanding of the team that we are and how we’re going to score goals. We’re keeping it simple.”

After having to rely on their fourth-ranked power play for most of the season, the Checkers are also starting to get contributions at even strength and, on Friday, with their first shorthanded goal of the season. The power play has accounted for just three of the team’s last 16 goals.

“It’s good that our power play has been consistent all year, but the message all along is that we’ve got to be better at five-on-five,” said Daniels. “We’ve worked on it a lot at practice and it’s not natural for us from a skill standpoint, but we can score other ways and I think we’re doing that.”

INJURY UPDATES

Though Dolan and defenseman Danny Biega are practicing with the team in non-contact jerseys, Daniels said that neither player is close to a return. The same is true of Jared Staal, who missed 11 games between Dec. 5 and Dec. 30, returned for two periods on Jan. 2 and has not skated since.

Rasmus Rissanen, however, has been practicing fully with the team for approximately one week and, according to Daniels, could play as soon as this weekend. The third-year pro has been out since suffering an injury during a fight Dec. 7, an incident captured on the Checkers’ “ref cam” video.

Rissanen’s return would help balance a Checkers defense that has had to rely on inexperience in recent weeks, with rookie Keegan Lowe filling a top-four role and Austin Levi playing his first nine AHL games.