The Checkers returned to the ice Wednesday morning after another stretch of road games as they move toward the final part of a grueling regular season, but you wouldn’t be able to tell that from the vibe on the ice.
Morale was high, tension was low and the team seemed to be energized.
“That was the objective today, to get some skills work and play some small-area games and slow the pace down a bit,” said assistant coach Ryan Warsofsky. “We’re coming back after some long travel and that can wear out some guys. So we wanted to get refreshed and regrouped and have a little fun.”
The practice may have had a more low-key tone, but those small-area games were anything but. The players brought plenty of passion to the two-on-two and three-on-three duels, battling hard to avoid becoming the team skating lines at the end.
“Whenever there’s some competition the guys always play hard,” said Warsofsky.
The Checkers are coming off a tough three-in-three across three different cities this past weekend that started with a pair of big wins before a lopsided loss capped off the trip in Bridgeport on Sunday.
“You obviously come back with a sour taste in your mouth with that loss, especially since we had the lead,” said Warsofsky.“But this time of year everyone is battling for the playoffs and we have to be ready for their best. I think we thought it would be easy once we got that lead.”
While the loss to the Sound Tigers put a damper on things, taking two out of three games on the road is a step in the right direction for the Checkers, who are looking to get back to their dominant ways of earlier in the season.
“Those were three tough teams that we played,” said Warsofsky.“To beat Providence, we’ve had some struggles there in their building before, I thought we got back to ourselves. I think that was the big positive this weekend.”
After running away with things for a large chunk of the season thus far, the Checkers have come back down to Earth as of late. Part of that can be attributed to changes in personnel, increased scouting, improved opponents and the like, but one of the biggest pitfalls at this point in the season is simply the grind of the schedule itself.
“We’re later in the season now, it’s crunch time and it starts to drain you a bit mentally, especially these first-year guys,” said Warsofsky. “We call it the dog days.”
The skills-oriented practice seems to be aimed at getting through those issues, as is the coaching personnel on the ice. Both Sergei Samsonov and Tim Gleason – Carolina’s Directors of Forward and Defensemen Development, respectively – took part in the skate and brought their significant NHL experience with them. In terms of getting advice for pushing through these dog days, you’d be hard-pressed to find two more qualified voices around.
“For them to be able to bounce ideas off of Sammy or Gleas, guys who have spent a long time in the NHL, that’s important for our players,” said Warsofsky. “For the young guys especially, maybe you’re slumping and you can’t score goals so you go and talk to Sammy. Maybe you’re having trouble breaking out pucks and making that first pass so you go talk to Gleas. It’s huge for this organization to have those guys.”
The grind of the regular season can sometimes bring about the injury bug as well, as three skaters were absent from Wednesday’s practice – Roland McKeown, Clark Bishop and Aleksi Saarela.
McKeown missed both Saturday and Sunday’s contests, while Bishop was sidelined for Sunday’s finale. Saarelaappeared in all three games over the weekend.
“McKeown and Bishop are day-to-day right now,” said Warsofsky. “We’ll see how this week progresses but hopefully we’ll get them back sooner rather than later. Saarela is also day-to-day, we don’t think it’s long term.”