“The way that we responded after Game 1 was a positive,” said head coach Mike Vellucci. “We were alert and ready right from the get-go.”
A tightly contested Game 1 ended in heartbreaking fashion for the visitors as a power-play goal in the final two minutes of regulation lifted the Phantoms to a victory. However the Checkers, who have been no strangers to adversity this postseason, didn’t let that loss deflate them. Instead they pushed forward and evened the series in decisive fashion the next day.
“That’s the key, you’re going to have some ups and downs,” said Vellucci. “This is a long series and it’s a long playoff grind and there’s always something that’s going to happen. You can choose one way or the other to respond and I want to make sure we respond the right way by staying positive and working hard and being good teammates.”
Games 1 and 2 may have only taken place a day apart, but that proved to be enough time for the Checkers to concoct a strategy for besting the powerhouse Phantoms.
“The reason I like a young team is they want to get better,” said Vellucci. “We scored two goals in Game 2 from a pre-scout that [assistant coach/video] Myles Fee put together. We knew they had some tendencies and our guys listened and we scored off of that.”
While the offense adapted to its opponent, Alex Nedeljkovic continued to show a mental sharpness between the pipes that led him to a historic regular season. The game-winning-goal in Game 1 could have been a backbreaker, but the netminder seemed unfazed and picked up his first career postseason shutout to move into a tie for the third-best goals-against average in the Calder Cup Playoffs.
“It’s not how many saves he’s making, it’s how big they are,” said Vellucci of Nedeljkovic. “He’s making saves at key times and that’s what you ask from your goaltender.”
With those adjustments and an impressive bounce-back performance the Checkers have now tied the best-of-seven series, seemingly carrying a boatload of momentum into Game 3, though they are quick to point out just how much hockey remains ahead.
“Yeah but hopefully not too much,” said Vellucci when asked whether his team had a newfound confidence after the blowout win in Game 2. “You don’t want to put too much into what the score was, you just want wins. We want to win. We lost 2-1 late in the game in Game 1, but it doesn’t matter what the score was, we lost. We had to be ready for the next game. This is going to be a long, grinding series. They have a lot of experience and a lot of pride in the other locker room. It’s only 1-1 and you have to win four games.”
BLUE LINE SHAKEUPThe Checkers have had good luck when it comes to injuries this postseason and have been able to field a steady lineup night in and night out thus far. That could change heading into Game 3, however.
Josiah Didier left Saturday’s Game 2 after receiving a high hit to the head by Lehigh Valley’s Nicolas Aube-Kubel – who has been suspended by the league for three games, forcing him to the sidelines for Games 3, 4 and 5 – and did not return. The blue liner was absent from Monday’s practice but was at the rink, and while the early prognosis is on the positive side, Didier’s status for Game 3 remains in the air.
“He said he feels great, he’s seeing the doctor today,” said Vellucci. “He’s such a warrior, he always feels good. I know he doesn’t want to come out of the lineup, but in these cases you have to do what’s best for the player and sometimes we have to make the decision for them.”
Should Didier be unable to suit up tomorrow, the Checkers have no shortage of options to fill the spot. Dennis Robertson was an everyday player for much of the regular season, while Jake Chelios remains close to being able to return from his injury. And then there’s Matt Finn, an ECHL call-up who has stuck around with the team.
“We’ve been fortunate to have good depth,” said Vellucci. “Guys have stepped in before. That’s how Didier got here, he was down in the ECHL and he came up because we had some injuries and he made a name for himself and stayed. I expect the rest of the guys to do that.
The decision likely won’t be made until tomorrow, but there’s a chance the choice could come down to the newest member of the defensive corps.
“We’ve got Jake Bean who’s a first-rounder,” said Vellucci. “He may see some action here if Dids can’t play.”
In another lineup note, Sergey Tolchinsky has been out of the lineup during the playoffs as well as being absent from practice. Vellucci today confirmed that the forward has left the team and returned home.
“He didn’t want to be a part of the team, so we granted his wish,” he said.
SPECIAL TEAMS SOARAfter a fairly tame Game 1, there was a noticeable jump in physical play for Game 2 between the Checkers and Phantoms. The two sides combined for 78 penalty minutes and 14 power plays, with just about every stoppage in play featuring players coming together.
For the Checkers, falling into that style of play doesn’t mesh well with the team’s biggest strengths.
“I don’t think any of our penalties in the last game were really penalties to be honest with you, but that’s the way it goes, that’s playoff hockey,” said Vellucci. “Our motto all playoffs long is play between the whistles. We have a skilled team and we want to play the game fast. We want to stay out of the box and we have a good power play. The pushing and shoving stuff doesn’t play into our game. We want to stay away from it and for the most part we have.”
On the positive side, the Checkers were able to kick start their stagnant power play over the course of eight man advantages Saturday, finally ratcheting it back up to its full potential.
“Everybody was complaining about our power play but it has been great all year,” said Vellucci. “You’re going to have times where you’re getting chances and the goalie is just making great saves. We made great plays in Game 2 and we finished. We finally finished.
“If you’re getting the opportunities, I’m not worried about it. Our guys work hard and they know what they’re doing.”
HOME ICESaturday’s win was big not just for evening the series at one, but for pushing home-ice advantage the Checkers’ way. The teams will now play three consecutive games in the Queen City and the Checkers will have a chance to close out the series without ever returning to Pennsylvania.
The Checkers now get to hit the Bojangles’ Coliseum ice, where they were stellar during the regular season and perfect in round one against the Penguins.
“There’s some benefits to the 2-3-2 format and one is that if we split the first two you get the next three at home,” said Vellucci. “We play well in front of our home crowd, they’ve been really energetic in the playoffs and all year long. I think we’ve given them a lot to cheer about. Hopefully they come out Tuesday and Wednesday and Saturday to support, I know they will. The guys feed off of it so it’s exciting to be at home.”
YOUNG BLOODThere were two new faces at practice Monday morning.
One belonged to Jake Bean, who is back in the Queen City for the second consecutive year following the conclusion of his WHL campaign. The blue liner was injured for the entirety of his stay last season, but he was still able to absorb some of the nuances that come with the pro game.
“It was huge to be able to watch them play and see the speed they play at and the little things they do differently than in junior hockey,” said Bean. “To watch that in person was good and now I hope to apply it.”
The 19-year-old is healthy this go-round, and the coaching staff seems ready to insert him into the lineup if need be.
“Bean was the 13th overall pick, so if we need him he’s going to be in the lineup,” said Vellucci. “We’ll see what happens with Dids. Beaner’s a great player, he’s a power-play guy, he sees the ice well and he’s very smart. He’s an NHL first rounder that we have high hopes for.”
With a taste of the pro game and another strong junior season under his belt, Bean is poised to make a splash in the lineup, should he get in.
“I have a lot of confidence,” said Bean. “Staying in camp with the Hurricanes as long as I did and playing games against almost full NHL lineups, that’s given me confidence coming in here. Whenever I get the call I’ll be ready.”
Bean should slide nicely onto a Charlotte blue line that houses a ton of offensive talent, something that plays into the teenager’s strengths.
“I think I fit in well,” said Bean. “Like-minded guys go together a bit easier so that transition might be a little bit better.”
The other new face belonged to Bean’s junior teammate and fellow Hurricanes draft pick Morgan Geekie.
Geekie is joining the pro ranks for the first time after a strong showing this season for the WHL’s Tri-City Americans, especially shining during their postseason run. The 19-year-old winger appears to be in the same boat as fellow ATO-signee Jeremy Helvig, joining the team to soak up as much of the pro game as they can.
“Geekie is just coming in here to see,” said Vellucci. “If we have some injuries we’ll decide at that point. But he’s a kid that has a lot of offensive ability, he had over 90 points this year. So we’ll wait and see what happens with him.”