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. I've been asked a lot recently to account for the success of the Checkers and there are a number of factors, but right now one line seems to have jumped to the forefront and has proved too much for opposition teams to handle – Steven Lorentz centering David Gust and Janne Kuokkanen have to be the best line in the league right now. Each one of them is operating with at least a point-per-game pace in the last month. When you add the continued production of Morgan Geekie and Jake Bean as well as superb goaltending from Alex Nedeljkovic and Anton Forsberg, it's no longer a surprise when the team strings wins together like they are right now.
2. Earlier in the year, when the team would give up a goal, you could see panic set in on the bench. In the last 15 or 20 games, this Checkers team has emerged much tougher and almost unflappable. The expectation each game is that winning is the only acceptable outcome. The change in mindset has manifested itself with 13 wins in the last 15 games.
3. With the unfortunate injury to Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton, I suspect Carolina will look for a replacement within the organization. The person most ready to step up and take a spot on the blue line is Jake Bean. He is playing the best hockey of his career right now. With winning a Calder cup last year and rolling into this season as one of the team's leading scorers while logging significant minutes, Jake has proven all there is to prove in the AHL. The time is right for him to grab a job with the big club. If it happens, all of us wish nothing but the best for a terrific player and person.
4. Speaking of the Hurricanes, if you didn't have a chance to catch the return of Justin Williams and his game-winning shot in the shootout, you should find the video. I suspect it will go down as one of the best regular season moments of the year. His return to the lineup took just one game to pay dividends.
5. The slow start to Kuokkanen's season is behind him. He is now the team's top scorer. Everyone knows he has all the skill necessary to play in the NHL. The question is, can he do it every night? He's answering that definitively right now and the Checkers are surging in the standings because of it.
6. Last Saturday night was sold out at the Coliseum. It was a rematch of last year's Eastern Conference Finals. The building was loud and the game met everyone's expectations. The tying goal with less than 30 seconds left sent the crowd into a frenzy. The overtime period was high drama with end-to-end chances. It took five rounds of a shootout and a highlight-reel goal by Lorentz to send everyone home happy. I have to think it was one of the top five regular-season games in Checkers AHL history.
7. This is about the time I remind everyone that former Charlotte Checkers color commentator Chris Jablonski thought that the Iowa Caucuses were a hockey team.
8. I'd like to make a suggestion for the NHL All-Star game. It would be great if each team gets to have one or two legends of the past join the game and play. You can't tell me that having Wayne Gretzky and Connor McDavid skating on the same line together wouldn't be fun to watch. How about Steve Yzerman skating with Mitch Marner and Austin Matthews? Those games are never played at full speed anyways and it's all for fun. Maybe Alex Ovechkin would've played if he was on a team with Mario Lemieux… It's not my worst idea.
9. Brian Gibbons sustained a lower-body injury on Saturday night that will keep him out of a lineup for several weeks. Brian is a terrific pro and we wish him a very speedy recovery. His absence will leave a tough spot to fill in the lineup.
10. Whenever I interview Hurricanes defense development coach Tim Gleason, I learn something new. He's a great teacher and cares a lot about the men he helps develop. Checkers players are lucky to have him around.