Wilkes-Barre/Scranton finished the season with a better record, ceding them home ice during the series, while also playing with the emotional thrust of trying to win a title for their retiring captain and hometown legend Tom Kostopoulos.
And yet, it was the Checkers who came out the other side. For head coach Mike Vellucci, his team advancing came down to two key aspects.
“One, we didn’t push and shove after the whistle, we played between the whistles,” he said. “We played hard but we played smart and that’s key.”
The Penguins established a hard-nosed style from the get-go but tended to unravel at times, totaling 60 penalty minutes in the three-game series compared to the Checkers’ 24.
“The second thing was that we kept our composure no matter what happened,” said Vellucci. “Whether we were down in games or didn’t like the ref’s calls or linesmen’s calls, whatever, we didn’t let that stuff bother us. You have to overcome those things and pick the right way to go in adversity and I thought we did that.”
The Checkers didn’t make things easy on themselves, surrendering the first goal in all three contests and erasing two-goal deficits in two of the games. Regardless of where they found themselves, the Checkers were able to claw their way back in an impressive fashion time and time again.
“It goes back to the fact that we didn’t panic,” said Vellucci. “We didn’t start screaming at each other and getting down. We stayed focused and stayed into it.”
While they were able to rally each time against the Penguins, the Checkers would prefer not to have to do that anymore.
“We have to have better starts,” said Vellucci. “I was just talking about it with our leaders. We have to have better starts and we have to get ourselves into it, whatever it takes. Make sure that we’re ready right from that first shift.”
Charlotte’s offense took center stage during the regular season, finishing as the most prolific in the AHL. That hasn’t changed in the playoffs, as the team averaged 4.67 goals per game in the first round, the second-highest mark thus far in the postseason.
The good news for the Checkers is that they’ve been getting that production from all across their lineup. Deadline acquisition Greg McKegg leads the way with five points, while Haydn Fleury has reestablished himself as an offensive threat with four. The usual suspects like Valentin Zykov, Andrew Poturalski and Aleksi Saarela have chipped in at a point-per-game pace, while depth scorers like Clark Bishop and Josiah Didier have chipped in with two goals and three points, respectively.
“We want our D to get involved with the play, we want to get one-timers, we want to get net-front traffic,” said Vellucci of his team’s offensive output in the first round. “It was good. Our power play dried up that series but we had some chances, their goalie made some huge saves early on. If you’re not going to score on the power play you’ve got to score five-on-five and we did. We got the ugly goals. There were some nice ones but there were some ugly ones where we made the right plays and paid the price. That’s playoff hockey. It’s something we’ve talked about all year.”
As Vellucci mentioned, the one low point of the series for Charlotte was its power play. After logging the third-best percentage during the regular season, the Checkers’ power play went cold against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. They managed just one goal on 15 man advantages across the three-game series and have been shut out in their last nine power plays.
The team knows that will have to change going forward.
“We need to win more faceoffs, we need to start with the puck more,” said Vellucci of the key to sparking the power play. “We had a lot of chances, we just couldn’t get it rolling. That’s the way it went there but we’ve got to get better on our entries and make sure we win more draws.”
But not even a struggling power play could slow down the rolling Checkers, who plowed through the Penguins for the franchise’s first ever series sweep – a nice footnote in the record books but not anything that the coaching staff wants to rest on.
“I’ve never played too much into sweeping or not sweeping,” said Vellucci. “We just want to win every game. We didn’t want to let up at all and give them any glimmer of hope in their own building. You have to get that first one and you have to keep that mentality to kick them when they’re down.”
Now it’s time for the Checkers to put that first-round triumph behind them and move on to taking down another division heavyweight.
“Momentum-wise, it’s a new series,” said Vellucci. “Same as the regular season, it’s back to 0-0 and nobody has any advantage. “We’re the lower seed in these playoffs, but we know what we can do, we know how we can play.”
HELVIG COMES ONBOARDThe Kingston Frontenacs were eliminated in the conference finals of the OHL playoffs earlier this week, ending the junior season for Jeremy Helvig.
The netminder isn’t headed to the offseason just yet, however, as Helvig joined the Checkers Tuesday morning and will remain with the team through the rest of their Calder Cup playoff run.
It’s a common practice for prospects to join their organization’s AHL team at the conclusion of their junior season, as Helvig – selected by Carolina in the fifth round of the 2016 draft – will now get his first glimpse of the next level.
“You want to get him some experience,” said Paul Schonfelder, Carolina’s minor-league goaltending consultant. “Coming out of junior it’s a bit of a step coming into the American League. So you bring him in here and let him soak it up and see how things are done. Get a feel for things so next year when he comes into camp he can hit the ground running.”
The 20-year-old Helvig was thrown right in, manning the crease at Tuesday morning’s full-team practice.
“It was pretty cool,” said Helvig. “Guys have harder shots here, they’re faster. It’s going to be good to get some experience at the pro level here. I just want to keep learning each day, learn from the other guys.”
On top of working alongside Schonfelder, Helvig will get a chance to shadow the Checkers’ current goaltending duo of Alex Nedeljkovic and Jeremy Smith. Both graduates of the OHL, Nedeljkovic and Smith represent different ends of the spectrum in terms of experience – the former battled through a tough rookie year to emerge as one of the league’s top netminders this season while the latter has carved out a strong career climbing from the ECHL to the NHL.
Regardless, Helvig will have plenty to draw from.
“One of the biggest things I told Jer is to watch these two guys and learn from them,” said Schonfelder.
“Watch them off the ice and on the ice and their habits and how they work out. He’s up here to soak everything in.”
INJURY UPDATEThe Checkers went through their first-round series at near full strength health-wise. Aside from Marcus Kruger, who was ruled out for the entire playoffs, the only question mark has been Jake Chelios. The blue liner has been out since late February with a lower-body injury and, while he has fully rejoined practice over the last few weeks, he’s not quite ready to return.
“He’s not really cleared but it’s getting closer,” said Vellucci. “It’s a tough injury that he has and there’s no use in having him come back too early.”
Once he is fully cleared to return to game action, it will raise a tough decision for the coaching staff, as the current crop of six defensemen have been solid for the Checkers over the last few months. Still, that’s a bridge they will cross when they get there.
“I’m not going to think about it until it’s time that we think he’s ready,” said Vellucci. “When he’s ready, we’ll make that decision.”