While they boast one of the youngest rosters in the AHL, several Checkers players have experience with the Calder Cup playoffs, a source that could prove beneficial for the squad moving into their 2018 postseason run.
On the current Charlotte roster, eight players have logged AHL playoff games outside of the Checkers’ first-round exit a season ago. Exactly how much postseason experience at this level ranges in the group from Josiah Didier, who appeared in four games for the St. John’s IceCaps last year, to Zack Stortini, who captured a Calder Cup in 2007 with the Hamilton Bulldogs. But regardless of the number of games, the consensus is that the AHL playoffs are an entirely different beast then the regular season.
“It’s more desperate, especially in this first round where it’s best of five,” said Philip Samuelsson, who made a run to the Eastern Conference Final with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in 2012-13. “You certainly get to know your opponent playing them five times in a row.”
“It changes a lot,” said Brenden Kichton, whose St. John’s IceCaps won the Eastern Conference in 2013-14. “It’s more of a grinding on the walls and dump and chase kind of game. It’s a grind.”
Aside from the differences stylistically, a big thing that stands out about the AHL playoffs is just how much more taxing it can be for the players. Last season’s Calder Cup Finals finished in June, meaning a championship run can tack on nearly another two months of action.
Managing that wear and tear is a critical part of keeping the team rolling until the end.
“You just have to keep an even-keel,” said Greg McKegg, who helped lead the Toronto Marlies to within a game of making the Calder Cup Final in 2013-14. “You can’t get too high or too low. It’s definitely a long process so you have to take it one game at a time.”
If there’s one thing that the Checkers have heading into the postseason, it’s momentum. Charlotte enters the playoffs as the league’s hottest team, currently riding a seven-game win streak and a 10-game point streak.
Whether that momentum means anything carrying over from the regular season to the playoffs isn’t a black and white issue, however.
“I feel like we’re playing some of our best hockey of the year right now,” said Kichton. “When [the IceCaps] went on that run to the Calder that’s what we had, we were hot going into the playoffs. I feel like this team has a lot of similarities to that team. I’ve got a really good feeling about this.”
“I think it’s a hard reset, to be honest with you,” said head coach Mike Vellucci. “The regular season means nothing, nobody has any points, nobody has any goals, nobody has any assists, it’s a whole new season. It doesn’t matter what our record was against them, it doesn’t matter how many goals we scored, it only matters what we do in the playoffs.”
“It’s a little bit of both,” said Samuelsson. “We’re obviously feeling good about our game, we finished up pretty well and were able to climb a bit in the standings. But it’s a new season now and everyone is starting from zero.”
While only a handful of players have been parts of long runs in the Calder Cup playoffs, Vellucci is quick to point out that there is no shortage of winning pedigree in the Checkers locker room.
“A lot of our guys have playoff experience too,” he said. “Foegele and Roy and Gauthier won their league championships in the Canadian Hockey League, Ned won a championship, Smitty’s won. Guys have won where they’ve been. Not at the pro or American League level, but they’ve won championships before, so from that standpoint we have a lot of winners that know what it takes to win in a series.”
Still, the Checkers will surely tap into those who have been here before to help power what they hope is a long Calder Cup run.
“We’re going to settle down the young guys,” said Kichton. “I’m sure everyone’s going to have a little bit of nerves. But we stay even-keeled all year and we made it here, so we’re just going to focus on playing our game.”
“We can lean on that experience a bit, but I also think that youthful energy will help us,” said Samuelsson. “We just have to get out there and play.”