In their second-ever game at PNC Arena, home of the parent Carolina Hurricanes, Charlotte fell 5-1 to the visiting Abbotsford Heat on Saturday. Victor Rask scored the lone goal and John Muse made 28 saves for the Checkers, who returned from the five-day All-Star break by extending their winless streak to five games (0-4-1).
Unlike their 3-1 win over Norfolk in their PNC Arena debut on Jan. 6 of last season, a day that happened to coincide with the end of the NHL’s work stoppage, the first of a back-to-back set against the Heat that continues Sunday at 4 p.m. left much to be desired.
“We didn’t play well,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “That’s one of the better teams in the league and if we want to turn pucks over and roll the dice and play that game we’re going to struggle and that showed tonight.”
Aside from the rest, the desperate need for points to get back in the playoff race and the chance to play in the venue that houses the NHL team the Checkers hope to play for one day, the fact that the Heat didn’t arrive in Raleigh until 4 a.m. following a 19-hour bus ride from Chicago made the poor performance all the more surprising.
“Absolutely,” said Sutter. “We talked before the break about going out, getting refreshed and coming back with the right frame of mind because these points are huge for us.”
“Because of the break we had the advantage,” said defenseman Ryan Murphy, who played the first half of the season with Carolina before joining the Checkers. “They were on a bus for quite a bit, got into town late and hadn’t skated until tonight. We should have taken advantage of that and we didn’t.”
The loss dropped the Checkers to 0-3-0 against Abbotsford, which extended its lead at the top of the Western Conference, in a season series that concludes Sunday. Unlike a 7-1 loss in the first meeting earlier this month in which the Checkers trailed by four after just 12 minutes, the Heat didn’t begin to pull away until near the exact midway point, when former AHL MVP Corey Locke pickpocketed Philippe Cornet in the defensive zone to set up a two-on-none break that resulted in an unassisted goal by 2011 first-round draft pick Sven Baertschi that made it 3-1.
That was the first of three unanswered goals for the Heat, who took the lead for good with an opening goal just 1:32 into the game on a short-side snipe by Markus Granlund on a delayed penalty and tacked on another early strike just 14 seconds into the second period courtesy of Blair Jones on a two-on-one.
“We’ve got to be smarter with the puck, simplify our game and get more pucks deep,” said Daniels. “If we want to be cute and turn this game into a track meet, we’re not going to win that way.”
The Checkers were able to capitalize on their first power play of the game with a goal by Rask, who stabbed home the rebound of Chris Terry’s shot from the right circle to make it 2-1. However, the man advantage would squander a chance to get back into the game shortly after Baertschi’s goal when a double minor to former Hurricanes prospect Trever Gillies gave them four minutes to work with.
“The four-minute power play didn’t generate anything and it was downhill from there,” said Daniels.
Third-period power play goals by AHL All-Star Ben Street and Ben Hanowski were icing on the cake, with the Checkers generating far less offense than they did earlier in the game when they got a breakaway chance by Zach Boychuk, a rebound opportunity by Justin Shugg that missed the net and a hit post in the first period.
Saturday’s game and the four that preceded it have put the Checkers on their longest winless streak since suffering a franchise-record seven consecutive regulation losses in November.
The Checkers had rebuilt their playoff hopes between those streaks, winning eight of 10 in January, giving them hope that the solution may not be far off.
“Now we know we’re a good team and we know we can win,” said Sutter. “Right before this we were on a winning streak, so if we change a few things in our game and the way we’re playing and get a little more north-south we can be a winning team again real easily.”
Starting slow in a back-to-back against the same opponent has been a theme for the Checkers of late, with some of their better bounce-back performances coming in the latter half. They’ll hope for more of the same on Sunday, their last appearance in Raleigh this season.
“The coaches do a good job of getting our heads back where they need to be,” said Sutter. “For as frustrating and disappointing that is, we need to regroup pretty quickly. Tomorrow’s a must-win like they are for the rest of the year.”
“Tomorrow we’re going to be a different team,” said Murphy. “The boys are going to be hungry for a win tomorrow because tonight wasn’t the start we were looking for.”