Having to play a three-in-three with what was supposed to have been a seven-hour bus ride mixed in lived up to their worst fears as they lost all three in regulation. Though points are usually at a premium this time of year, the Checkers may not have been able to foresee how crucial that stretch would end up being for a team on the playoff bubble, or that two of the games would be against one of their main competitors for what spots remain available in the Western Conference.
Now that it’s over, they find themselves needing something close to perfection, or perhaps perfection itself, to get back in the playoff position they held just five short days ago.
“In the big picture, we’re going to have to win all four,” said coach Jeff Daniels, referring to the team’s remaining regular-season schedule. “For now, we’ve just got to focus on getting that first win (against Grand Rapids) on Thursday night.”
After holding the eighth spot entering last weekend, the Checkers slipped to 10th by way of Friday’s loss in San Antonio and two more in Oklahoma City over the next two days – the first time they’ve gone pointless in a three-in-three over their four AHL seasons. They’re still only one point behind Rochester, the new eight seed, but having played more games than most other teams in the race means they’ll need some luck in addition what they can control on the ice.
So far, that luck has been in short supply. The sleeper bus that was supposed to take them from San Antonio to Oklahoma City on Friday night broke down, with the process of getting a replacement bus, a considerably less rest-friendly coach bus at that, delaying their arrival until 7 a.m. Hours later, it looked like Rochester was going to suffer a loss against Toronto until the Americans scored three goals in the last four minutes to win in regulation. That night, a stellar last stand by the Barons’ Richard Bachman robbed them of a point they would have earned against most other goaltending performances.
As frustrating as that day was, the real kicker came when the Checkers rallied back from a 4-1 deficit to tie Sunday’s game at 4-4, only to see the Barons get the winner with 35 seconds left and just moments after Victor Rask had hit the post at the other end. They had played two close games, gutting through the fatigue to stage a dramatic comeback, with absolutely nothing to show for it.
“We had a talk after that game,” said captain Brett Sutter. “We can’t let it get us down, and we took the night to sleep on it and let it sink in. We’ve been fighting for the last month or so here to give ourselves a chance and we’ve done that, so if we get back to the way we were playing 10 days ago we’ll be alright.
“It’s a tough one to swallow, but that’s part of hockey. It’s a new day, the legs are back under us and we’ll be back for Thursday.”
Given that all the other teams in the race have games in hand on the Checkers, they’ll be more opportunities to watch the scoreboard than contribute to it. The week got off to a good start with ninth-seeded Rockford losing in regulation on Tuesday, though the Checkers will be wary of getting too caught up in such things.
“You waste energy on what’s going around the league and you’re not focusing on what you need to do,” said Daniels. “We put ourselves in this situation and we’re going to have to get out of it.”
That starts this week against Grand Rapids, a team already assured of finishing with a better regular-season record than its Calder Cup campaign last year. Until then, they’ll spend the time resting up – Zach Boychuk and Chris Terry, who played four games four days starting with Carolina’s game against Dallas last Thursday, got an extra day off from practice – and shaking off any potential hangover from a crushing end to a tough week.
“We had a bit of a backbreaker, but they’re smart enough to know our situation and we’ve got to rebound from that game,” said Daniels.
“We’ll take it game-by-game, but we know that to have a chance we have to control our own fate,” said Sutter. “We’ll start it off with a good few games at home, and a big win Thursday would put some pressure on the other teams.”