One of those departures was entirely expected, as goaltender Justin Peters, whose 2.19 goals-against average in five games helped stabilize a defensively struggling team, took up the full allotment of his temporary conditioning stint from Carolina. The Hurricanes’ recall of Ryan Murphy the next day was less of a necessity, though the writing may have been on the wall based on Murphy’s play (18 points in 16 games) and an injury to Justin Faulk.
The net result is that the Checkers, who have won three straight games to keep their playoff hopes alive heading into a tough three-in-three set that begins in San Antonio this Friday, will have to continue that momentum without two players who had a heavy hand in its creation. An even further change occurred when the AHL suspended Matt Corrente for one game on Thursday.
Perhaps the largest area of adjustment will be in goal, with John Muse, who is just coming off an injury, not playing since Feb. 18 and Mike Murphy off since Feb. 21 as the Checkers took full advantage of Peters. In the nine games prior to Peters’ arrival, the Checkers were averaging 4.22 goals allowed per game. That wasn’t fully on the goaltending, though Daniels had made it clear that he wanted more.
“They understood the situation where Petey was down here to play and now it’s their turn to step up and lead us,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “We’ll see which guys are ready to play.”
Muse skated with the team on the last leg of its road trip but said he was not able to fully push himself until Thursday’s practice.
“It’s getting better every day, and I should be good to go this weekend,” he said. “We’ll just have to see how it feels tomorrow morning.”
On defense, the Checkers don’t have a point producer quite like Ryan Murphy, who took sole possession of the team’s assist lead among blueliners during his brief stint. That said, Mark Flood is one of the league’s best in terms of goal scoring with 12 on the season.
“Murphy is a little more dynamic in the way he plays, but the other six guys will keep playing the way they’re playing,” said Daniels.
That will be the goal for the remaining members of the Checkers, who were otherwise undisrupted by Wednesday’s trade deadline that could have easily opened up roster spots in Carolina and resulted in more losses in Charlotte. By all accounts, every member of the team was closely following the news of the day.
“Like everyone else, they’re experts,” quipped Daniels. “They feel they know what a good trade is and a not good trade is.”
Though they don’t necessarily want to see someone they know get traded – Zach Boychuk specifically mentioned hating to see Carolina’s Tuomo Ruutu, “One of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet,” move on – there could have been some mild disappointment that the the day did not result in what’s been a relatively rare chance for Checkers forwards to play their way onto a veteran Hurricanes roster. In that trade, Carolina received an NHL player, Andrei Loktionov, back from New Jersey.
“As a guy playing in the minor leagues, you always want a spot to be opened up,” said Boychuk, who has a hat trick of hat tricks since playing his last NHL game on Jan. 10 and is tied for fourth in the league with a career-best 27 goals. “Ruutu moving out maybe opens up a spot in a couple of years and creates more competition. I’m just trying to contribute to this team as much as I can, and eventually my chance will come.”
“A lot of the guys deserve an opportunity to go up and play at some point,” said Daniels. “Hopefully it’ll come for them.”
A continuation of the team’s current play that has seen it earn points in six of its last eight games (5-2-1) certainly wouldn’t hurt. High-end forwards like Boychuk, Chris Terry, Aaron Palushaj and Brett Sutter have all been key parts of the team’s recent success and would make good candidates if the need for a recall arose. In the meantime, the playoff push will continue in Charlotte, with the Checkers needing to make up five points in the season’s last 20 games.
“We’ve been playing some pretty good hockey in the second half of the season,” said Boychuk. “We’ve put ourselves in a position to make a playoff push, and those three wins we just had were huge for that.”
According to Boychuk, the team took extra encouragement from Tuesday’s 3-2 win over Norfolk, in which the team scored two goals in the last five minutes despite several players playing through illness, himself included. They came 45 seconds away from having to play overtime in the last game of a grueling, week-long trip that included approximately 24 total hours on the bus.
“We sat on the bus after the game and there wasn’t much chatter going on,” said Sean Dolan, who scored the game-winner. “Guys were pretty tired after that.”
Even though the upcoming trip, the final leg of a franchise-record, 10-game road swing, will have less travel, it does contain the only three-in-three set of that segment.
“It definitely gets long at times, but to just know that we’re going to be on the road for a while and we need those wins makes it fun,” said Dolan, who, like the rest of the team, was in Charlotte for less than two full days before preparing to leave once again. “It’s more of a challenge.”
Due to roster restrictions put in place after the NHL’s trade deadline, Murphy is the only player the Checkers could potentially receive from Carolina for the remainder of the season. Asked if he might consider making a move at the AHL level at some point, Daniels expressed doubt.
“We’ll look and see if something makes sense, but I wouldn’t plan on something like that just based on having extra guys,” said Daniels. “Unless something can really make us better, I’m not planning on anything.”