During the season, Checkers broadcaster Jason Shaya checks in each week with his 10 Thoughts - a series of observations about the team and the hockey world in general.
1. The Checkers were already battling injuries and callups leading into their playoff series against the Providence Bruins. After injuries to Micheal Ferland and Andrei Svechnikov in Carolina, the team has now lost their captain Patrick Brown. With Jake Bean, Haydn Fleury, and now Roland McKeown out long term, this Checkers team is going to have a serious battle against a very good Providence team.
2. This is the most important quote of the week by head coach Mike Vellucci. "Those last two games in Cleveland meant everything to them and meant nothing to us but our guys were still blocking shots and paying the price." Vellucci is exactly right. The Cleveland games had no bearing on the standings for Charlotte whatsoever. When the Monsters turned up the heat, the Checkers put them in their place. I have never been around a team that hates to lose like the current Charlotte team does. Granted, it doesn't happen very often, but in the rare occasion of a loss the room is a pall of misery. There’s no statistical analysis or advanced stat that measures the will to win and the disgust of losing.
3. Vellucci was named coach of the year this week. I doubt anyone was surprised by the award. Asked about the award this week, Vellucci was quick to deflect the praise. He immediately mentioned his staff of Ryan Warsofsky and Myles Fee helping him each and every day. Vellucci and his staff guided this team to the best record in franchise history with one of the lowest payrolls and losing some quality players along the way. And yet, Vellucci persevered. The man never panics and he's constantly looking for solutions to whatever problems arise. Off the ice, no one has done more to bring a team together and promote the organization in the city than Mike. He understands the business of the game and wants to help grow the team's footprint and fan base. We have been extremely fortunate as an organization to have a man like Mike as our coach the last two seasons and believe me when I tell you, no one wants to win a championship more than him. One more point about Mike-- even with all the awards, victories and championships in his professional career, I believe he is most proud of being a father to his kids, which should tell you the kind of man he is off the ice.
4. Roland McKeown's season is on hold with a lower-body injury. Here is why that is such a massive blow to the team – Roland is the most consistent defenseman this team has maybe ever had. He rarely makes mistakes. He is the efficient, cerebral and quiet defenseman every team needs. He's an NHL defenseman and it's long overdue for someone to give him a chance. Last year, he was +34, one of the league's best. He followed it up this year with more points and a +30 rating. This is a large enough sample size to see what is obvious – the Checkers are a better team when he's on the ice. It will be strange not to see him out there for Charlotte in the first round.
5. With over 900 NHL games played – and one single shift with the Charlotte Checkers last year – Lee Stempniak will dress for Providence in this series. In 20 games played, he has 7 goals and 11 assists for 18 points. Providence is already a deep team up front but a player like Stempniak could shift the balance as a depth forward for the Bruins. Charlotte's defense will have their work cut out for them against a player who has over 200 NHL goals to his credit.
6. Hopefully coming back from injury, Andrew Poturalski, in my estimation, is going to be the most important forward for Charlotte. Andrew was playing his best hockey of the season before sustaining an injury which probably cost him the record for most points in a single season for the franchise. If the line of Aleksi Saarela, Morgan Geekie and Poturalski stay intact for the team, they will face the burden of having to go against the best line every night for Charlotte to win this series. All three of those players have shined this year and there is no reason to think they'll stop now.
7. I've heard Vellucci say many times that the bigger the game, the better Alex Nedeljkovic plays. This year has been one long display of Nedeljkovic and his brilliance in net. But, right now, the new season begins and as always, goaltending is the center of attention. If what Vellucci says remains true, than Charlotte has a chance to win each and every night no matter who the opponent – so long as the best goalie in the AHL continues to perform like he did all season. The playoffs could very well be the last in the AHL career of Nedeljkovic and no one wants to win his last game more than Alex. Congrats to him for winning the goalie of the year award but now onto bigger things.
8. Tampa Bay won 62 games this season, tying the record for most in NHL history. They rarely suffered any hardship going into the playoffs. They went up 3-0 in Game 1 and they believed everything was going according to plan. Then the wheels came off and today, one of the most dominant teams in regular season history is wondering where it all went wrong. If the playoffs are the first time a club experiences adversity, you will lack the skills to adapt when needed. Tampa was a paper tiger and when the winds blew unfavorably in their direction, they were whisked away.
9. If Charlotte makes a significant run in the post season, the moment they picked up Tomas Jurco will be remembered as the most important acquisition of the year. Jurco makes a case to return to the NHL next season with every game he plays. I was familiar with his skill, which is amazing, but what opened my eyes was how hard he plays and how badly he wants to win. This was the trade of the season for Charlotte.
10. The broadcast begins on Saturday night at 6:50 PM with a puck drop scheduled for 7:05 PM. The Dunkin' Donuts Center is the most unfavorable in any league I have ever called a game. You virtually have to guess what's happening at the far end of the ice. Despite our best efforts, this will remain unchanged for the broadcasts on Saturday or Sunday. The only thing left to do is complain constantly in order to make myself feel better and to call two great games for Charlotte. Interviews, highlights and special guests are planned. Join us for both games and if you're at American Burger Company for our viewing party Saturday night, make sure you tweet to let us know. See you all in Charlotte on Wednesday night and have a great Easter.