The AHL season started with 31 teams in contention. Now, eight months later, only two remain – the Charlotte Checkers and the Chicago Wolves.
The Checkers got to this point by defeating a gauntlet of increasingly tough opponents along the way, culminating in a heavyweight matchup against the defending champion Toronto Marlies in the Eastern Conference Finals. After dropping a tight contest in Game 1, Charlotte found itself trailing 3-0 in Game 2 and on the verge of falling into a staggering hole.
Then came the comeback.
“We were down 3-0 in Game 2 at home, we would have gone down 2-0 in the series and that could have been the end of it,” said head coach Mike Vellucci.
“Everybody looked like they were in a panic. My point to them then was ‘How good is this going to feel when we win?’ And then we came back and won. That was the turning point in my mind.”
Pulling off that improbable victory in front of a raucous crowd on home ice turned out to be the spark Charlotte needed to dethrone the defending champs, taking two out of the next three games in Toronto and ousting the Marlies in Game 6.
“That was an unbelievable win,” said Andrew Poturalski of the Game 2 comeback. “I think that was what changed the whole series. That’s not to say we couldn’t have come back in the series, but going to Toronto down 2-0 would have been really hard for us. We stuck together, we stayed positive and that confidence just rolled with us into the rest of the series.”
Taking down Toronto and punching the franchise’s first ticket to the Calder Cup Finals are huge accomplishments for this Checkers team, but that’s all on the backburner now as the sights shift to the ultimate prize.
“We’re on to the Wolves,” said Poturalski. “We enjoyed [winning the Eastern Conference] and had a great time with the guys, but we’re focused on the Wolves now. You make it to June, you want to win. It’s no fun going to the Finals and losing, it’s all or nothing now.”
“We didn’t come this far for nothing,” said Trevor Carrick. “The boys feel confident right now and we’re looking forward to closing it out.”
The Finals present a unique challenge to both sides as Charlotte and Chicago never faced one another in the regular season. In fact, the last time the two squads played was the first round of the 2017 Calder Cup playoffs, when the Wolves won a decisive Game 5 to eliminate the Checkers.
“We haven’t played them so we don’t know their personnel very well,” said Carrick. “We’ll have to take it one game at a time and adjust our game to the way they play. I think at this point in the playoffs though it’s going to come down to hard work and who wants it more. We’re going to have to leave it all on the ice.”
“It’s tough not seeing a team all year and then playing them in the Finals, you don’t know what to expect,” said Poturalski. “But our coaches do a great job, they pull a ton of video and they prepare us well.”
That scouting has been in the works for a while now, with this break between rounds providing a nice chance for the Checkers to brush up on their upcoming opponent.
“We’re doing our homework,” said Vellucci. “We’ve done a lot of video, I’ve talked to maybe four coaches who have played against them – three of those being playoff series. I don’t think there’s going to be any secrets. With video and pre-scouting and everything, we’ve been tracking them for a while.”
The early prognosis shows a Wolves team that should prove to be a formidable matchup for the Checkers.
“They’re solid up front, they can score goals,” said Vellucci. “They’re an older team, guys have been around for a long time and played in big games and played in the NHL. They have some good young guys too. They have a defenseman there they took in the second round, Nic Hague, he’s a big kid, six-foot-six, and he’s got a great shot. They’re a good, solid team, they wouldn’t be this far if they weren’t. It’s going to be a tough challenge.”
Chicago finished with the Western Conference’s best regular season record, with its 98 points ranking fourth in the AHL overall. The Wolves were strong on both sides of the puck, tying for eighth in goals per game and ranking third in goals against and has a top-10 power play.
“I think they’re a pretty similar team to Toronto from what I’ve heard,” said Carrick. “I imagine these games are going to be more intense than the last series, everyone is going to have to bring their A game. Our goaltending has been great, our D has been good and our forwards have been scoring goals. It’s going to be the same thing for us in this series.”
While the Wolves present the Checkers with a unique challenge in this first meeting, Charlotte doesn’t feel the need to stray from what got it to this point.
“We want to stick with what we’ve done all year,” said Poturalski. “The coaches have put together a great system and a great culture in the locker room. We know what we’ve got to do. We’re going to stick to our game, battle adversity if it comes and go get some wins.”
A big part of Charlotte’s success has come from a wide array of contributions from players up and down the lineup, something that becomes more and more important as the playoffs continue on.
“Going into the playoffs we knew we were going to have to face adversity, but different guys have been coming up big in every game,” said Carrick. “Guys have been stepping up. Everyone is excited to play and putting in the work.”
“We have so much skill, every line can play hard and score off the rush, that’s been a key all year,” said Poturalski. “To have that next guy up mentality has been great. I think that’s why we’ve gotten so far.”
The Checkers’ current roster has more than its fair share of bumps and bruises, but having this week to recover before the Finals has proved to be quite beneficial.
“We’re 85 or 90 games in now so no one is 100 percent healthy, everyone is battling something,” said Poturalski. “To get a couple days off to rest and recharge is huge. We’ve got a couple back-to-backs which will be tough so we need to take our rest when we can get it.”
Rested up and ready for the Wolves, the Checkers begin the final leg of their quest for the Calder Cup Saturday night in front of what should be another sea of fans clamoring for a championship.
“These first two games are going to be huge for us,” said Carrick. “I know the crowd’s going to be great as they always have been.”
Our guys are excited, they love to play in front of these fans,” said Vellucci.
“It’s a great building, it’s loud, the acoustics are great. It’s a very exciting time to be a fan of the Charlotte Checkers.”