They were able to salvage a single point in the two-game set with Cleveland by forcing Friday’s contest into overtime, but a blowout loss the next night left Charlotte with hardly any positive takeaways.
“We’re not working hard enough, plain and simple,” said head coach Ryan Warsofsky. “To be a pro you have to play at an extremely high level and we’re not doing that right now.”
At the 10-game mark of the season, the Checkers sit just a shade under .500. That’s hardly the worst-case scenario, but in a tough division like the Atlantic every point will hold significance come playoff time.
Warsofsky hasn’t minced words regarding his team’s early-season performance and his message has been clear, but he understands the responsibility his staff has to get things turned around.
“At the end of the day, it’s up to me to get these guys to buy in and work a little harder,” said Warosfsky. “It’s up to the coaches to put the game plan in place and prepare these guys to play at a high level.”
Wrangling together a group heavy on new faces isn’t an easy task, but Warsofsky has plenty of familiar, dependable players on his roster, and he’s counting on them to pull from what made last year’s team so special.
“It’s also up to our leadership group to step up when things aren’t going in the right direction and bring the guys together,” said Warsofsky. “These are some guys who won a championship last year. The bar has been set and it hasn’t been good enough and it has to be changed.”
Warsofsky has been walking the walk as well, putting the team through a tough string of practices featuring a lot of high-tempo skating.
“I think we’ve had a few good days of practice,” he said. “We need to turn the page on last weekend and our effort needs to be way higher. Our work ethic and our compete, they need to be brought up to another level. It wasn’t good enough.”
In the grand scheme of things, it’s still fairly early in the season and a quick winning streak could get Charlotte out of this funk and back on track. And while stringing together wins is the ultimate goal, the Checkers are taking things a step at a time.
“It would be huge but that can’t be our mindset,” said Warsofsky of putting together consecutive victories. “We can’t win three games on Friday night. Each guy has to do their job to an extremely high level and we need to play together.”
NEW LOOKThe Checkers are looking to shake things up in an effort to get on the right track, and a flurry of transactions this week seem to be forcing their hand anyway.
With Erik Haula day-to-day with an injury, the Hurricanes have recalled Eetu Luostarinen from Charlotte. That’s a big blow for the Checkers, as the rookie forward has been the most consistent offensive performer on the roster.
“This is the AHL, guys go up to the NHL, guys come up from the ECHL,” said Warsofsky. “You have to deal with it.”
On the flip side, the move opens up an opportunity for players to rise to the occasion.
After starting the season with Charlotte, Jacob Pritchard was sent to the ECHL’s Greenville Swamp Rabbits, where he chipped in three points (2g, 1a) in five games. With some confidence on his side, the rookie jumps back up to the Checkers, as does Greenville standout Cedric Lacroix, who has two goals in his one career AHL game.
One forward the Checkers will be without for a bit is Stelio Mattheos. After making his return to the ice over the weekend after undergoing cancer treatment throughout the summer, the rookie has been sidelined once again, although not under the same circumstances.
“He’s going to be out probably long term,” said Warsofsky. “Nothing cancer related, just lower body.”
On the defensive side, the logjam opened up a bit as Alex Lintuniemi was placed on unconditional waivers to return back to Europe. With Fredrik Claesson still a question mark – he spent the week in a yellow no-contact jersey and was absent from Thursday’s skate – there is still a chunk of blueliners looking to solidify an everyday spot in the lineup, and this weekend is a great chance to showcase themselves.
“The next guy up has to step up,” said Warsofsky.
That doesn’t just go for the players on the fringe of the lineup either.
“I believe that every guy in this locker room can play at another level,” said Warsofsky. “That’s as simple as it gets. We haven’t seen the best from some players, it’s been very inconsistent at times. We need to raise our focus, our awareness, our engagement in the hockey game so we’re at our best.”
LOOKING FOR OFFENSEOne of the Checkers’ biggest struggles over the weekend was finding production offensively. They mustered just two goals over the two games in Cleveland, and now find themselves ranked in the bottom half of the league offensively.
“We’ll tweak the lines a little bit,” said Warsofsky. “We’ve introduced some new concepts this week in practice to help us score some goals.”
After ramping up shot production over the previous few games, the Checkers couldn’t replicate that over the weekend, logging just 21 and 23 shots in the respective contests. Granted, Cleveland stands as one of the league’s top defensive squads, but the Checkers had a hard time creating the quality chances they’ve been successful on earlier in the season.
“There’s been some times where we’ve had our structure and done what we need to do without the puck and things have turned out pretty well,” said Warsofsky. “When we get away from that is when it ends up with us playing defense for 30 or 40 seconds. You can’t sustain pressure or any zone time when you’re playing defense the whole time.”
That idea of Charlotte’s struggles in other areas affecting the offensive production is something Warsofsky points out as one of the team’s biggest issues.
“I’m not really worried about us scoring goals, that’s honestly the least of my worries,” he said. “I’m more worried about how hard we’re going to work and how hard we’re going to be to play against, the details and our habits. Because I think if we play the right way our scoring chances will go up and we have guys who can score goals."