1. ROUND TWOBecause of the AHL’s unique postseason setup, the first round against Providence was a truncated best-of-five series. That can prove be a tough situation for the higher-seeded side, as the shorter series tend to lead to more upsets – especially in the Checkers’ case where they had to start on the road for the first two games. The good news for Charlotte is that the remainder of the playoffs will be more traditional best-of-seven series.
“That first round is what it is, there’s nothing you can do about it, but anything can happen,” said Dustin Tokarski. “With a seven-game series we get to start at home and that’s huge.”
The Checkers roared their way to the league’s best record during the regular season, securing themselves home ice for the entirety of the playoffs. Getting the chance to kick off this series against Hershey on the right foot in front of passionate fans in a building they have thrived in all year is the payoff for that remarkable season.
“It’s huge,” said Andrew Poturalski. “We worked hard all year for that home-ice advantage and we want to use that to our favor and hopefully the crowd will be good for us.”
Aside from having that home-ice advantage on their side, the Checkers are prepared for some adjustments when it comes to switching from a five-game series to a seven-game series.
“It definitely changes,” said head coach Mike Vellucci of the difference. “It’s more of a grind. You can’t have too many highs or too many lows. In a short series you have to get it done early. In a longer series you can be patient. Things can change in a heartbeat.”
By finishing up their matchup against Providence quickly, the Checkers have enjoyed some time off between rounds, using this week to prepare to embark on what should be a tightly contested series against Hershey.
“You have to balance work ethic and rest, especially with a back-to-back here and then one there right away,” said Tokarski, referencing the compact schedule of the first four games. “But guys have been great all year. We had a good first series and I think the guys know what to do to take care of business.”
2. ON TO HERSHEYWith this week to regroup, the Checkers have shifted their attention from Providence to Hershey, with the latter bringing new and different challenges.
“There are some differences in their systems, they play differently in the neutral zone than Providence,” said Vellucci. “Little things will change but it’s the same mentality for us, we have to take care of ourselves and play our system at our pace and make sure we’re playing fast.”
The Checkers and Bears squared off four times during the regular season, with Charlotte logging a 1-2-1 record in the series. Much like they did with the Bruins, the Checkers found themselves in a lot of close battles with the Bears this year, with three of the four meetings – two of which went to a shootout – being decided by a single goal and the other being decided by just two.
There’s no doubt that Charlotte won’t take the Bears – who went 27-5-6 over the second half of the season, a slightly better mark than the league-leading Checkers – lightly.
“They’re a great team,” said Poturalski. “We lost our last two games up in Hershey so we know they can bring it. They’re a tough team to beat so we have a lot of preparation to do. I think we’ll be ready for them come Friday.”
Watch PartiesThe Burger Company (road games only)
Game 1 at CHAFri. 5/3, 7 p.m.
Game 2 at CHASat. 5/4, 6 p.m.
Game 3 at HERTue. 5/7, 7 p.m.
Game 4 at HERWed. 5/8, 7 p.m.
Game 5 at HER*Fri. 5/10, 7 p.m.
Game 6 at CHA*Sun. 5/12, 5 p.m.
Game 7 at CHA*Tue. 5/14, 7 p.m.
3. BATTLE BETWEEN THE PIPESSome of the most important factors in this series will be in the creases for both sides.
The Checkers are currently without their award-winning workhorse Alex Nedeljkovic, who is in Carolina backing up Curtis McElhinney. It’s uncertain when the star netminder will return to Charlotte – the Canes aren’t trying take any risks in Petr Mrazek’s return from injury – but the Checkers are in good hands regardless. Tokarski was acquired at the AHL trade deadline in an effort to bolster Charlotte’s goaltending depth and he has proved to be a tremendous addition thus far. The veteran won each of his seven appearances with Charlotte during the regular season while posting a stellar 1.14 goals-against average and a .956 save percentage.
“He’s got experience and that’s the reason we got him, in case something like this happened,” said Vellucci. “He’s very mature, his teammates love him and he’s been great for us. There’s not going to be a drop off.”
Completing Charlotte’s goaltending duo is Jeremy Helvig, who turned in a breakout rookie campaign in the ECHL with the Florida Everblades. On the other side are a pair of extremely formidable goalies for Hershey in Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov. The duo split the crease duties during the regular season and continued to do so in their first-round matchup, with the 23-year-old Vanecek going 1-1 with a 1.49 goals-against average and a .962 save percentage and the rookie Samsonov going 2-1 with a 1.61 goals-against average and a .945 save percentage.
“They have a couple young goalies in Hershey that are pretty hot right now,” said Vellucci of Hershey’s biggest strength.
The Checkers have used this week to hone their game plan for besting the Bears’ netminders.
“We know that we have to get a lot of shots and get good traffic,” said Poturalski. “We’ve been working on shots from the point with screens and stuff like that.”
4. TOP LINE CLICKINGCharlotte’s offense through the first round was largely propelled by the staggering production from their top line of Morgan Geekie, Andrew Poturalski and Aleksi Saarela. Poturalski set a new franchise record by racking up a league-leading nine points (5g, 4a) through the four-game series, while Geekie averaged a goal-per-game and finished the series with five points (4g, 1a) and Saarela chipped in three helpers through three games.
“All three of them had a good first round,” said Vellucci. “I think it was their puck movement and their quickness. Some of the things that they do is talent-driven, but it’s also their work ethic.”
The trio logged plenty of ice time during the first round, turning in a well-rounded performance to complement their offensive outbursts.
“They played well defensively,” said Vellucci. “Since they’re going up against the other team’s top line, when they do that they’re going to play well offensively.”
They’ll now face a Hershey squad that could prove to be tighter defensively, so getting continued production from their top line will be a huge plus for the Checkers.
“I expect things to tighten up a bit,” said Poturalski. “When we got Providence on the ropes things opened up for us. But we’re going to be ready.”
5. DIG DEEPThe Checkers have prided themselves on having excellent depth of scoring throughout the season, and while the top line carried much of the offense through round one, they’ll no doubt be looking to call upon that depth to take down the Bears.
“That [Tomas] Jurco and [Martin] Necas line, [Clark] Bishop was there and then he was up, so we were rotating centers a bit, but we’ll do something there to get them going,” said Vellucci. “The [Nicolas] Roy line has been good defensively, now hopefully they can start putting it together offensively.”
That’s not to say a new round won’t mean new forwards breaking out.
“It’s playoff hockey, so every round is different,” said Vellucci. “Just because that one line was hot doesn’t mean it’s going to be the same next round.”
6. THE KEYWhen asked to name the one biggest key to this series against Hershey, Vellucci had a simple answer – special teams.
The Checkers were strong on both fronts in the regular season, tying for 10th on the power play and posting the AHL’s best penalty kill, while Hershey clocked in at 15th and 25th in those respective categories.
The postseason is a whole different animal, though, even on special teams. The Bears struggled to get anything going on the man advantage in the first round against Bridgeport, scoring once on 18 tries, while their penalty kill ranked right in the middle of the league at 83.3 percent.
The Checkers’ power play never really got much of a chance in the opening round, as their nine man advantages were tied for the fewest of any playoff team, but the PK continued to shine, killing off 90 percent of their 20 times shorthanded. The Checkers were one of just five teams to have at least 20 power plays against them.
Now the Checkers will look to take their lessons from round one and convert them into success against the Bears.
“We took a lot of penalties and didn’t get many power plays in the last series,” said Vellucci. “Right or wrong, that was the reality. So we need to adjust that and stay out of the box and try to draw a few more power plays.”