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. For the first time in franchise history, Charlotte is in the Calder Cup Finals. In order to get there, they defeated Toronto – their toughest opponent yet. The Marlies were a combination of skill and determination. The series ended in six games but could have gone the other way as well. They're the best coached team Charlotte has played and Maple Leafs fans should be ecstatic at the level of talent on that roster. When I spoke with their phenomenal broadcaster Todd Crocker before the series, he told me it was going to be fun above all else. The stress endured aside, the hockey rose to the level we all expected. Checkers VP of Hockey Ops Derek Wilkinson told me before it started that goaltending would be the difference. He was right.
2. Let's continue with goaltending: Dustin Tokarski's performance in Game 5 had everyone talking. He doesn't look like he sweats when he's out there. I'm not entirely sure his heartrate exceeds 60 beats a minute. He didn't know he was starting that night's game until right before an optional morning skate. He went about his business as usual, stepped onto the ice for the game and skated away the number one star. Impressive. As for Alex Nedeljkovic, I watched him in warmups before Game 6 and I thought the only way the Marlies were going to score is if one of our defensemen barrels into him and takes him out of the crease. I hate it when I'm right. Alex was in his element. It was the most important game in franchise history. In overtime, he made the biggest save in team history with a glove save on Mason Marchment. He was brilliant. He's a winner.
3. I heard this comment from a Checkers coach after Game 6 ended: We don't win that series without Patrick Brown. That should tell you all you need to know about how good Brown is playing for his team.
4. Nine of the top 11 players in the plus-minus category in the playoffs are Charlotte Checkers. Andrew Poturalski and Morgan Geekie are one and two with +14 and +12, respectively. It feels like every single time there is a huge moment in the game and the Checkers are celebrating, Geekie is in the middle of it. He's a rookie in the AHL scoring over a point per game in the playoffs. The responsibility of centering the team's top line would make some other players buckle under the pressure, but Morgan just keeps getting better. What does that tell you about him as a person? A lot. Also, Roland McKeown has played in five playoffs games since returning from injury and he's +6. No one should be surprised about that.
5. In the last three games he's played, Steven Lorentz has three points. In Game 2 he assisted on the game-winning goal by Jesper Sellgren, In Game 5 he scored the game winner and in double overtime on Sunday he had the primary assist on the series winner by Geekie. There is plenty to like about the way this kid plays the game.
6. Head Coach Mike Vellucci and his staff should be mentioned for their work in the playoffs. When there were bumps in the road, Vellucci always remained calm and worked tirelessly to find the best solutions. For example – the decision to go with Tokarski in order to give Nedeljkovic another day of rest was vital. Another was the decision to put Lorentz in the lineup on Sunday night because he believed he could get the spark the team needed. Those decisions are not easy and if you don't make the right call, you're out of the playoffs. Instead, Vellucci and his team are Eastern Conference Champions. We are not here today if it isn't for Mike Vellucci.
7. Aside from being the boss, team owner Michael Kahn is a fan above all else. His son, Michael Jr., wasn't at the game this past weekend as he was having a procedure done in Dallas. He was resting and cheering on his team with his mom and dad. The Kahn family is the reason the Checkers are still thriving in this city. Michael Jr., along with his brothers Max and Luke, are staples at the Coliseum. I know Little Michael wanted to be there but I am sure he is thrilled his team is four wins away from the ultimate trophy. He'll be at games soon enough breaking the play down just as his older brother Max did when he was that age.
8. In Game 5, Haydn Fleury logged over 27 minutes of ice time. He was the best defenseman on the ice that night. Not only did he score a shorthanded goal in the second period, he helped shut down Toronto's best line all night. He carried over that play into Game 6 and was a critical addition to the team since the end of the Hurricanes season.
9. During NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman's press conference before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals, he mentioned that only three of 1.42 million NHL Bracket Challenges guessed the first three rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs correctly. He didn't mention that back in this column in October, I predicted St. Louis would win the Stanley Cup … even though he probably should have.
10. Two teams believe their destiny is to walk away champions of the AHL when the last game ends. In many ways, Charlotte and Chicago are similar teams. Both are fast and strong with mobile defensemen and high-skilled forwards. Both teams are very well coached and have excellent broadcasters named Jason. When one team raises the Calder Cup, they'll believe the outcome was inevitable. No one plays hockey in June unless they possess the genuine belief that this moment belongs to them and their teammates. Tears will be shed on both sides when it's all over. Never will victory feel more glorious. Conversely, the heartbreak of losing will be devastating because you'll find out you were wrong to believe history was on your side as you watch another team live out their dream right in front of you. There is no second place. This is a zero sum game. There's only a winner and a loser.
Join us for both broadcasts on AHL TV, ESPN 730 or streaming on the Checkers App this weekend if you can't find a seat at the game. Based on our record-breaking attendance on Sunday, I assume these next two night will be selling out. The pregame show is at 5:45 with a 6pm puck drop. The overtime games in the Eastern Conference Finals had predictions coming in on Twitter so fast I couldn't read them all. The fan support is incredible and hopefully we are all celebrating together soon enough.