In two outings against Texas, the West’s top team as of Tuesday morning, the Checkers lost 4-1 on Friday but battled back to a seventh-round shootout loss the next night. The weekend was indicative of the season series between the two clubs that still has two games left to play in March, in that the Checkers went toe-to-toe against one of the league’s best.
“I liked the way we played,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “I thought we played two strong games and I really liked the game on Saturday, but I really would have liked to get out of there with at least a split.”
That they did not is surely disappointing, even though they came within the flip of a coin in a shootout that saw the Checkers score three times on seven attempts. That’s part of the reason why the end result was easier to stomach, along with the fact that the team seems to be headed in the right direction since ending a five-game winless streak against Abbotsford on Feb. 16.
“Obviously we need wins but we’ve got to keep playing the way we’re playing,” said Daniels. “The last four games (2-1-1) we’ve played the right way. You look back at the way we came back in Abbotsford, played in Norfolk and then the two games in Texas - that’s got to be the way we play.”
With the series in Texas dropping them below the .500 mark they’ve been straddling for the last month, the Checkers know they’ll have their work cut out for them in the season’s remaining 24 games, which have to be their best of the season. Even after playing four of their last five games against Texas and Abbotsford, who have been slugging it out for the division and conference lead all season, the schedule won’t get much easier with each of the next eight games on the road. Six of those are against teams currently in playoff position, with the other two against a San Antonio team that has won six of its last eight.
“Personally I don’t look at the stats daily, but I kind of know where we’re at and know that we have to win games,” said forward Chris Terry. “I think we need to win seven or eight games out of this 10-game road trip, and that would set us up for a strong end to this season.”
“You kind of project to where you need to be based on point totals from years past, but focusing on our next game is all we can control,” said Daniels. “We’re not in a situation where we can look too far ahead to see who’s down the road.”
A few additional notes as the team departs for the second leg of its marathon road stretch – a four-game trip to Norfolk and Hershey:
PETERS TAKES OVERAfter sitting out the first game the Checkers played since he joined them on a conditioning stint last week due to lack of practice time, Peters got the start in what ended up being a tough assignment on Saturday. Not only was he facing the conference’s top offensive team, but he had to go all the way into the extra rounds of the shootout.
“We threw him right in the deep end, but he wants to compete,” said Daniels. “That’s why he’s here - because he wants to play. I really liked his game and I know he’ll keep getting better just with more time on the ice.”
“I’ve been working hard to try to avoid (being rusty),” said Peters. “I knew I was going to get an opportunity at some point. I didn’t know when and I didn’t know where, but I knew at some point that it was going to come. It was fun that it was a close, competitive game to get the juices flowing again in a game situation.”
According to Daniels, Peters will play every game for the remainder of his conditioning stint, which could last no later than March 6 (four more games), unless the Hurricanes decided to expose him to waivers. Given how often his role has changed this season, one might expect Peters to welcome at least a few weeks of certainty. However, he’s not treating it as such.
“I’m not looking past tomorrow, because I know how quickly things can change, good or bad,” he said.
Peters’ presence has allowed the Checkers to be cautious with John Muse, who did not make the trip to Texas due to an injury suffered earlier that week. He will, however, go with the team to Norfolk and Hershey, having practiced for one of two days since the team returned from Texas.
“Petey’s going to play so right now we have the luxury of not rushing Muser back,” said Daniels. “We’ll let Petey run with this now and when the time comes he’ll be healthy and ready to go.”
While the Checkers are happy to have Peters, his conditioning stint could present a situation where the Checkers, upon his departure, would have to rely on two goalies that haven’t played in at least two weeks.
“It’s tough to juggle,” admitted Daniels. “The other guys will just have to work hard in practice and be ready when they’re called upon.”
HOME VS. ROADThe Checkers began the season as a much better team on the road. On Nov. 15, a month and a half into the season, the splits (5-2-1 on the road against 0-6-0 at home) were particularly jarring.
Those records have since evened up to the point where the difference isn’t as noticeable in terms of results, though Daniels still feels there’s been a season-long trend that could help them navigate the remainder of their franchise-record, 10-game swing.
“It’s tough to put a finger on why, but we seem to be more relaxed and play a simpler game on the road,” he said. “We’re not trying to get too fancy – though we go through stretches where we do that – but for the most part we play a simple game and have teams react to us.”
“When you’re on the road there are less distractions and you go into games as more of an underdog because you know the home team is supposed to win,” said Terry. “JD’s strong message is that we’re not here to put on a show, whether it’s for the home crowd or the away crowd. We’re not a sideshow. We come to do our business and get two points.”
The first leg of the 10-game swing, a quick weekend in Texas, already completed, the rest is broken down to a pair of four-game trips. This week, the Checkers drive to Norfolk for one game, up to Hershey for two and then hit Norfolk on the way back for the make-up date of a January postponement. They’ll only be home for a day before flying out to play San Antonio and Texas, though not in a way that makes much logistical sense (San Antonio to Texas to San Antonio to Texas again).
INJURY REPORTDaniels said that Greg Nemisz, who has missed the last six games, is traveling with the team and could potentially play in Hershey this weekend, though no firm timetable was set. Nemisz has been practicing with the team in a yellow no-contact jersey.
The news on Brendan Woods, who missed Saturday’s game, was not as positive. According to Daniels, the rookie forward, who has a lingering injury that previously kept him out of six games in January, will now be out four-to-six weeks.
Because of the injury, Woods will miss a chance to play in Hershey, where he went to high school while his dad, current Anaheim Ducks assistant coach Bob Woods, coached the Bears to a Calder Cup. The timetable provided by Daniels would have him available sometime in late March to early April.
According to Daniels, Woods had been playing some of his best hockey of the year in recent weeks, including a Feb. 9 game against Oklahoma City when he scored a goal and fought longtime NHL agitator Ben Eager.