Fresh off the AHL All-Star break, the Checkers briefly reconvened in the Queen City for a quick practice before jetting back out on the road this afternoon.
The last time the team hit the ice was a two-game set in Hartford that didn’t go the Checkers’ way.
“It was a tough weekend and unfortunately we only got one point out of it,” said head coach Mike Vellucci.
After rallying to earn a point in the first contest, the Checkers came out firing in the rematch with 38 shots on goal, but found themselves staring down a surging netminder.
“I thought we played really well in that second game, but we didn’t score,” said Vellucci. “We out-chanced them 18-7 but their goalie played great and we lost 4-0. I pulled the goalie pretty early in the third trying to get something past their goalie but we couldn’t do it, he was hot.”
Aside from the inability to light the lamp, an early second period two-man advantage by Hartford proved to be a pivotal moment in the game, as the Wolf Pack scored twice to jump ahead before tacking on another power-play goal later in the frame.
“Our penalty kill gave up three goals and you just can’t do that if you want to win,” said Vellucci.
Despite dropping pivotal points to a deep trailing them in the standings, the coaching staff has found positives to draw out of the series in Hartford.
“I hate to lose as much as anybody,” said Vellucci. “But I thought we played really well.”
The Checkers quickly moved from those losses in Hartford to the All-Star break. With players scattering about for a quick vacation, Vellucci left them with a message before they left.
“I told them to get their rest and get ready,” he said. “That’s what we talked about after that last game. We’re one of the youngest teams in the league and now we’ve got eight games in 14 days coming up. They were running a little tired there at the end, so I told them to get rejuvenated and ready to go.”
The hope is that the team took their coach’s words to heart, because the schedule doesn’t ease them back into things in the second half. The Checkers are heading into their second three-games-in-three-days scenario this weekend before another road contest on Wednesday that rolls directly into a pair of home games the weekend following that.
That brutal stretch brings about some challenges for the coaching staff when it comes to keeping its team as fresh as possible.
“I’m going to have to sub guys in and out and manage the ice time and roll four lines,” said Vellucci. “Hopefully we can not get on the ice too much in terms of pregame skates. We’ll probably do one tomorrow but not Saturday or Sunday. We just have to manage their rest, manage their eating and getting them lots of fluids so we can get the lines evened out as much as possible.”
As the schedule moves into its post-all-star-game portion, the Checkers don’t have much room to work with in the standings. After going 3-6-1 during the month of January, Charlotte is tied for the fourth and final playoff spot in the ultra-competitive Atlantic Division. The tight race has the Checkers just four points away from the third-place Providence Bruins, but also has Hartford lurking four points behind the deadlocked Checkers and Sound Tigers.
Needless to say, the Checkers can’t waste any time getting back into the win column.
“We’ve talked about it,” said Vellucci. “I’ve said it for a long time, every point is very important no matter what. If you’re down in a game you’ve got to scratch and claw to tie it up and at least get it to overtime. If you’re up in a game, you have to make sure to do the smart things to win the game. Every point is very important and I’m pretty sure they know that.”
The Checkers appear to be slated to field essentially the same lineup they’ve been running with heading into this four-game trip, but Thursday’s practice did bring about some roster news.
Josh Wesley showed up on the league’s transactions log earlier this week, but that was clarified as a paper transaction due to an injury suffered in the ECHL with the Florida Everblades.
“He’s getting surgery on his shoulder,” said Vellucci of the second-year blue liner. “He’ll be out the rest of the year.”
Spencer Smallman has been dealing with a similar situation since training camp. After returning to the ice and skating by himself, the rookie forward progressed to joining the team for practices and is now out of the yellow no-contact jersey, though he is still a ways away.
“He’s got another two weeks of full practice to go,” said Vellucci. Then he’ll see the doctor and we can decide where he goes then.”
Then there’s Sergey Tolchinsky, who underwent surgery at the start of January after taking a shot to the ankle but took a big stride Thursday.
“Today was his first day on the ice,” said Vellucci of the young forward, who donned the yellow sweater for the team’s skate. “He’s ahead of schedule. I was surprised to see him out there, I’m excited to see him. I’m not sure how much longer it will be, but at least he’s on the ice.”