Before Game 1 of the Central Division Semifinals, brush up on the ins and outs of the Checkers and their opponents, the division champion Chicago Wolves.
CharlotteAlthough they lost some big weapons early on this season, the Checkers have been adding more and more kick to their offensive arsenal as the year has progressed, and now they could be slated to have their most dangerous group of forwards in a long time. The rookie duo of Andrew Poturalski and Lucas Wallmark have been the leaders of what proved to be an extremely deep well of offensive production this season for Charlotte. The team boasts established powers at this level (Phil Di Giuseppe, Andrew Miller), talented physical presences (Valentin Zykov, Andrej Nestrasil, Patrick Brown) and more, and now could be poised to gain even more firepower.
While they haven’t been cleared to play just yet, leading goal scorer Wallmark and Danny Kristo, who had 10 points in 14 games this season, have been ruled “probable” for tomorrow’s Game 1 by head coach Ulf Samuelsson. In addition, Finnish prospect Alekis Saarela, who had a staggering six goals and 10 points in 9 games this season, is close to returning as well, though Samuelsson dubbed him “day-to-day” and said he “may or may not be available” for Game 1. Add to that Wednesday’s assignment of highly-touted prospect Janne Kuokkanen from the junior ranks, and the Checkers could be looking at the option of trotting out a full 12-man lineup of scoring threats.
“We’ve had a lot of good lineups,” said Samuelsson. “We’ve had a lot of lineups with some less recognizable names that have won games. So I’m not as focused on names as much as I am the level of play we have. We have a deep roster right now, we have a lot of players to choose from, so the competition is very hard.”
ChicagoThe Wolves’ offensive attack has been a force overall throughout the season, finishing the campaign tied for fourth in the AHL in terms of goals per game, and the majority of that production has come from their top-tier talent, which includes the league’s leading goal scorer (Wade Megan) and MVP (Kenny Agostino).
“They have one of the best top lines in the AHL and they’ve got the best player in the AHL,” said Samuelsson. “We have to play great defense. They will get some chances, but we’re going to try to push them in their end as much as possible.”
Beyond that line there’s Samuel Blais, a rookie out of the QMJHL who has shown a knack for finding the back of the net, racking up 26 goals during his first pro year. But without the likes of Landon Ferraro, Ivan Barbashev and Magnus Paajarvi, the Wolves' depth up front has taken a bit of a hit. They will likely lean on those high-end players, though skaters like Brett Sterling, Jordan Caron and Bryce Gervais can provide a substantial threat if they get going.
CharlotteThe Checkers, who ended the 2016-17 campaign ranked 12th in the AHL in terms of goals against per game, have been carried down the stretch by the same group of six defensemen – Trevor Carrick, Jake Chelios, Dennis Robertson, Roland McKeown, Haydn Fleury and Philip Samuelsson. That corps has played with the same three pairings in every game since Feb. 21, when the Hurricanes struck a deal with Montreal to send Keegan Lowe to St. John’s and acquire Samuelsson. That trade coincided directly with the Checkers' hot streak, as the team picked up points in 20 of 25 games from that point on.
Jake Chelios continues to pace the back end in scoring, while Haydn Fleury has quietly become one of the group’s most consistent powers. The rookie has looked stronger and stronger as the season has worn on, and his plus-16 rating during the regular season matched the highest by any skater in franchise history.
ChicagoWhile their offense garners most of the headlines, the Wolves have put together a solid season defensively, finishing with the eighth-best goals allowed per game average in the AHL. Things have been up-and-down on that end for the Wolves to end the season – they allowed three or more goals in five of the final 10 games of the regular season - but Chicago’s defensemen make up for it with some impressive point totals from the blue line. Leading that charge is rookie Vince Dunn, who pumped in 45 points while maintaining a plus-15 rating.
CharlotteIf there was one moment that you could point to as the start of the Checkers’ rapid ascension, it would be the acquisition of netminder Tom McCollum. Since he was assigned to Charlotte on March 8, the team is 13-2-4, winning nine of 10 at home and picking up a point in eight of nine on the road. The veteran netminder has turned in stellar numbers along the way and helped kickstart his new team.
“Tom arrived here and showed us some stability between the pipes,” said Samuelsson. “He gave us confidence and everything started building from there. A lot of players started playing better, we started getting healthier, and our guys were really aiming to make the playoffs.”
Having familiarity with the postseason after several successful Calder Cup Playoff runs with the Grand Rapids Griffins, McCollum is about as good of a goalie as a team could want at this point in the season. And yet, the Checkers’ crease situation may still improve from here.
While Samuelsson has held onto his decision to start McCollum in Game 1 on Thursday, the head coach announced after practice on Wednesday that Michael Leighton would dress and be an option going forward. The AHL legend has been out since Feb. 17 with an injury that required surgery to fix. But after rejoining the team for practice this week, Leighton will be ready for game action, thus giving the Checkers a formidable one-two punch in goal.
ChicagoThe Wolves’ goaltending situation was about as split as it could be during the regular season, with Jordan Binnington shouldering the biggest load of games at 32, followed by Pheonix Copley’s 25 appearances and rookie Ville Husso’s 22. With Copley being shipped to Hershey at the trade deadline, the tandem of Binnington and Husso will take on the Checkers in round one. Both goalies have put up solid numbers, with Husso’s slightly edging those of Binnington, though the latter has picked up the majority of the team’s wins this season.
After Copley’s departure, Binnington earned seven consecutive starts between the pipes, but since then the duo has split crease time pretty evenly, though Husso ended up playing six of the team’s last nine games during the season.
“Playoffs are a new experience,” said Samuelsson when asked about facing a rookie goalie in the playoffs. “You really get to judge your players now when the pressure is mounting. You never know how they will react. But you have to know how to react in these situations.”
CharlotteA big storyline this season has been the Checkers’ struggles on the man advantage. The team has been buried at the very bottom of the AHL’s rankings for the majority of the season and while that’s where they would finish the season, the team has seen a dramatic improvement from the unit.
The Checkers have recorded 15 power-play goals in their last 17 games, a 23 percent clip. That run includes power-play goals against four teams who ranked in the AHL’s top 13 penalty kills.
“The shot volume is up,” said Samuelsson on what is behind his team’s improvement. “We’re getting the puck to the net more often. Fleury and Philip have good chemistry, they’re getting a lot of one-timers off, and we have four guys reacting to the shots. Every shot you get, something great can happen.”
ChicagoHelping to boost the Wolves’ offensive numbers this season has been a strong power play that finished the year ranked eighth in the AHL with a 20.3 percentage. And just like at even strength, their high-end scorers have led the way. AHL MVP Agostino paced the team with 35 points on the man advantage, while his linemate Agozzino earned a team-best 11 of his 18 goals on the man advantage. From the back end, Vince Dunn has been a key cog in Chicago’s unit, collecting 16 helpers on the power play.
“They have very good passing skill in that group, so I think our stick work and working together as a group of four in the middle will be big,” said Samuelsson. “Making sure we keep the shots on the outside and not the seam plays that the Wolves always try.”
The Wolves saw a slight dip on the other end, however, finishing 13th overall in penalty killing, and the Checkers have been able to take advantage of that, converting on four of their 13 man advantages during the two clubs’ last four meetings.
3 To Watch
- Andrew Poturalski – After going through a six-game scoreless drought in late March, his longest of the year, Poturalski returned from his NHL debut with a vengeance, finishing the year with four points in the last five games. The rookie’s 52 points this season led the team and ranked third among all league rookies, making Poturalski a nightmare for defenders.
- Lucas Wallmark - Wallmark has only played three games for the Checkers since March 26, but not even that absence could keep him from setting franchise records for rookie goal scorers. Armed with a deadly shot from the top of the slot, Wallmark wrapped up his regular season with 11 points in the last 10 games.
- Phil Di Giuseppe - Again splitting his time between the NHL and AHL, Di Giuseppe has no problem putting up points at this level. The third-year pro has shown a newfound physicality this season, forcing his way around defensemen and into the offensive zone on several occasions, and has quickly developed chemistry with the players around him, picking up eight points in seven games since returning from his most recent NHL stint.
- Kenny Agostino – A former fifth-round pick, Agostino exploded this season for an AHL-best 83 points (24g, 59a) in 65 games, earning himself MVP honors. The 6-foot-1 winger has been a consistent force for the Wolves, only failing to record points in consecutive games on two instances, neither of which lasted more than three contests. The bad news for Chicago is that Agostino missed the last three games of the season due to injury, making him a bit of a question mark heading into this series.
- Wade Megan - After totaling 34 goals across his first four pro seasons, the 26-year-old Megan made the leap this year, netting 33 goals in 73 games to capture the AHL’s goal-scoring title. Centering the Wolves’ dominating top line, Megan has tormented teams across the league this season with his quick shot and knack for finding the puck, especially the Checkers, as the Boston University product lit them up for six goals and 11 points in eight games against Charlotte this year.
- Samuel Blais - Making the jump to the pro game hasn’t slowed down the 20-year-old Blais, as he netted 26 goals this season, good for second on Chicago and second among all AHL rookies. Blais has seen ups and downs this season, as the majority of first-year pros do, but he enters the playoffs on a tear, having recorded a goal in four straight games to end the regular season.