The team - or most of it, anyway - has reconvened in Raleigh for a pair of games against the Abbotsford Heat at PNC Arena on Saturday and Sunday. Those games will mark the second consecutive year that they’ve played at the home of their NHL parent club, the Carolina Hurricanes, though this year’s edition will be a little different.
“The lockout was on the verge of ending so it was a pretty intense game and obviously a fun building to play in,” recalled coach Jeff Daniels of the Checkers’ 3-1 win over Norfolk on Jan. 6, 2013. “The guys were excited to play in this building, I thought it was a great game and hopefully it can be the same atmosphere coming up this weekend.”
With the NHL’s work stoppage ending on the morning of last year’s game, there was plenty at stake for a handful of players on a talent-laden Checkers team who were hoping to earn invites to training camp the following week. There may not be the same amount of urgency caused by that incredible stroke of timing, but the sentiment is the same.
“This is where the guys want to get to,” said Daniels. “This is something that they’re down in Charlotte working for – they want to get to Carolina at some point.”
With the Hurricanes off for the Olympic break, the Checkers also know that the watchful eye of the organization’s upper management will be upon them. That, and a recent 0-3-1 slide that followed their overtime loss on Sunday, underline the importance of a good performance.
“The last six games we kind of took a step back,” said Daniels. “It’s important for us to get back on track and make that playoff push starting (Saturday).”
The first game after the All-Star break, one that saw the team disperse from various locations including those not too far (Asheville) to those representing a little more of a getaway (the Bahamas), can often be a difficult time to put one’s best foot forward. However, in this case, rest may be the perfect remedy.
“It’s nice to get a break,” said Zach Boychuk, who has played more Hurricanes games (82) than any of his teammates. “We didn’t want to finish the way we did going into the break but guys were able to get away from hockey, relax a little bit and get rested up. Now we’re ready to make a big push.”
“Mentally it came at the right time,” said Daniels. “We struggled a bit, but coming into the break we did a lot of travel and had a lot of games in a short period of time and that eventually caught up to us. It was good to get away from a few days, get a chance to practice today and be ready for the next few days.”
The Checkers’ only previous games against Abbotsford came during that hectic stretch, with the team playing back-to-back games on the west coast in the middle of a grueling stretch that saw them play six times in nine days in three different cities. The first match-up, a 7-1 loss, was not pretty. The following day, they competed much harder by coming back from a trio of one-goal deficits but still lost in regulation when the Heat netted the winner with three minutes remaining.
“They’ve got good depth at all positions and on paper they’re probably one of the best teams in the AHL,” said Boychuk. “If we play them the best that we can I think we’re going to have a good chance.”
Heading into this weekend, the Checkers hope the rest will allow them to do just that and more closely resemble the team that won eight of 10 before hitting its recent slide.
“After the break hopefully we’ve got all the rust out of us in that practice right there,” said Checkers defenseman Matt Corrente, whose only previous game at PNC Arena was in a preseason scrimmage. “They’re a great team, they skate, they hit and we know that and we’re going to be ready for that.”
Checkers forward Greg Nemisz will not get another chance to play against his former team as he is out for the weekend due to an injury that also caused him to miss the team’s last game on Sunday. Though defensemen Mark Flood and Ryan Murphy missed Friday’s practice due to travel delays, they are expected to be available Saturday.