The Checkers roll into the postseason after the most impressive campaign in franchise history. They sat atop the AHL standings nearly wire to wire, capturing the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy as the regular season’s best team with a staggering 110 points.
But even so, the team knows those accolades don’t mean anything once the playoffs kick in.
“I just talked to the players, it doesn’t matter what you do in the regular season,” said head coach Mike Vellucci. “We had a good season but now it starts new. Everyone is 0-0. We played the right way getting into the playoffs and now it’s a new slate and it starts with that first puck drop.”
Actually, there is one regular season accomplishment that should come in handy for the Checkers moving forward.
“We do have home ice and that’s key, that’s what we were working towards,” said Vellucci. “Obviously we’re going in there and trying to win every game that we can. You would like to at least split in Providence, but if not you have home ice so you have the next three in your building.”
Because of the distance between Charlotte and Providence, their best-of-five first-round series will begin with two games in Rhode Island before shifting to North Carolina for however much longer the series goes. It’s a unique setup that puts the first-place Checkers on the road to start, but they’re prepared for the challenge.
“They’ll have last changes so we’ll see what kind of matchups they want,” said Vellucci. “There may be some strategy to moving things around. But we’ve been successful playing four lines this year. I’m not too worried about the matchups up front. On defense we’re a little more aware of what we’re going to do. But if I can roll four lines up front and get maximum effort out of everybody then it usually means better results for us.”
FINISHING STRONGThe Checkers rolled their way through much of the regular season, but they really ratcheted things up down the final stretch. Charlotte won 17 of their final 21 games, including notching several victories after having wrapped up all available accolades.
“What’s so encouraging to me is that those last two games in Cleveland meant everything to them and meant nothing to us but our guys were still blocking shots and paying the price and doing the little things to win two games that didn’t mean anything,” said Vellucci. “That’s the character and leadership in the room.”
The Bruins had a different path to the postseason, squeaking into the fourth and final spot in the Atlantic Division by holding off the Lehigh Valley Phantoms by two points. They nabbed that spot despite going 5-5-0 over their final 10 contests, alternating wins and losses through that stretch.
The two sides may have come into the postseason on different trajectories, but as Charlotte’s coaching staff has been harping, things are different in the playoffs.
“I think we can still play better for sure,” said Vellucci. “It’s not only another gear, it’s when you face adversity, how do you overcome that? Making your own bounces and when things aren’t going your way you have to work on digging deeper and create your own opportunities. We can still play better.”
HEAD TO HEADAs Atlantic Division rivals the Checkers and Bruins faced each other eight times throughout the regular season, with Charlotte logging a 4-2-2 record. The tightly contested series wrapped up a while ago – the two squads haven’t played since the middle of February – and seven of the eight meetings were decided by one goal, with the lone outlier being decided by two.
“It was a very tight series, most of them were low-scoring one-goal games,” said Vellucci. “They’re technically very good, we have to play a very good structured game. There’s not a lot of room in the neutral zone. The team that makes the least amount of mistakes is going to be the team that wins the series.”
INJURY UPDATESThe Checkers went through the final week of the regular season with several key pieces missing from the lineup, but the good news is that it appears most of them are on the mend.
Josiah Didier, who has missed the last six games, Clark Bishop, who has missed the last nine games, and leading scorer Andrew Poturalski, who has missed the last four games, were all full participants in practice both Monday and Tuesday, a good sign for their improving health.
“I’m not sure if they’re going to be in this weekend, but they’re looking good, they’re looking better,” said Vellucci of the trio. The bad news is that the blue line has taken a hit, with Roland McKeown being sidelined.
“McKeown is going to be out for an extended period of time,” said Vellucci of the defenseman who finished the season at a team-best +30 rating.
Tomorrow we'll preview both teams' forward corps.