After splitting a Halloween weekend series with the Utica Comets, the Checkers embarked on a mammoth road trip, one that spanned three weeks and saw the team facing a heavy slate of games.
That flurry of a trip, which featured three back-to-back sets on consecutive Fridays and Saturdays with a pair of Wednesday contests tossed in between, took a heavy toll on the Checkers, who will have to quickly reset for this busy home stand.
“Well I gave them an extra day off,” said head coach Mike Vellucci. “So hopefully that charged their batteries up and they’re ready to play tonight.”
Charlotte has only played on home ice four times this season, tied with Ontario for the fewest across the AHL. The hope is that being back in the friendly confines of Bojangles’ Coliseum brings with it some reversal of fortune for the Checkers.
“It’s good to be home,” said Vellucci. “We’re going to try to get a jump here from the start. Get the energy back up and get some breaks.”
That lengthy road trip started strong for the Checkers, who swept Belleville and Utica to vault up the conference standings, but fell off quickly with a four-game skid to end.
That losing streak has seen the high-flying Charlotte offense, which still ranks third in the AHL in terms of goals-per-game, come back to earth, as the team totaled just eight goals across those four games.
Despite that dip in production, the coaching staff doesn’t appear worried about their club has lost its scoring touch.
“We had our chances, I’m only worried when we don’t get our chances,” said Vellucci. “You’re not going to score all the time. We still got great opportunities. We hit a couple posts and their goalies have played well. That’s the way it goes sometimes. I’m not alarmed by it by any means.”
The Checkers will have a chance to right the ship tonight against a middle of the road Belleville team that they handled with a two-game sweep earlier this month. Add to that the drive to break their slump and the Checkers should be more than ready for tonight’s contest.
“We should be pissed off with the way that trip ended,” said Vellucci. “There shouldn’t be any motivation needed other than wanting to get back on the right track tonight.”
ROOKIES PITCHING INCharlotte’s offensive attack came out of the gates strong, establishing the team as one of the top offensive threats across the league. That attack has taken a bit of a hit as of late, however, with leading scorer Lucas Wallmark forced to the sidelines for the majority of the November road trip and Phil Di Giuseppe recalled to the NHL.
The absence of those two is significant on the Checkers as a whole. While they still possess some established scorers like Andrew Miller and Valentin Zykov, the platoon of young forwards is being called upon to step up and fill those slots.
“These guys are first year pros, so it’s going to be an adjustment for them,” said Vellucci. “Not every team is expecting their first-year pros to put up points, but we are.”
Leading that charge has been Warren Foegele, who burst onto the scene and has stayed as the most consistent rookie on the team, logging 10 points through his first 15 games, including eight goals that rank second on the team overall. Following him are Nicolas Roy, who has four points in his last five games, and Janne Kuokkanen, a late addition to the Checkers who has put up six points in his eight games played. Meanwhile Julien Gauthier continues to search for his scoring touch at this level.
Regardless of their overall inexperience, that is the group that the coaching staff is looking for production from, however long that takes.
“We’re probably the one of the youngest teams so when you have guys like Kuokk and Roy and Gauthier and Foegele, they want to come in and just fit in,” said Vellucci. “I’m trying to tell them we don’t want them just to fit in, we want them to be a star player. That takes some time.”
FILLING IN THE BLUE LINEThe Checkers’ blue line has had a rough go to start the season in terms of staying healthy. The group has had multiple players fluctuate in and out of the lineup with injuries, with the available players shuffling around the pairings.
The most recent development is the loss of Dennis Robertson, who missed Saturday’s road trip finale after suffering an injury the night before. He joined the team for this morning’s skate, but didn’t appear to be taking shots and remained on the ice to bag skate with the other extras, likely indicating he won’t be in tonight.
Still, Vellucci doesn’t have a definitive answer on the blue liner’s availability.
“I don’t know,” he said of Robertson’s status. “He looks okay. He’s a tough kid, he plays through a lot of injuries.”
Whether Robertson returns to the lineup remains to be seen, but it does appear that recent call-up Josiah Didier impressed enough in his last stint to work his way into tonight’s tilt.
“There are always going to be injuries or call ups,” said Vellucci. “So when you have your chance you have to make the most of it. Josiah Didier got called back up because when he was here he played really well. That’s no coincidence that we were playing well at that same time. So he’s going to get the chance to step in and play again tonight.”