When they take on the Chicago Wolves at 3 p.m. today, the Checkers will cease to be the only AHL team that has yet to play in their own building, a distinction they’ve held for two weeks thanks to a team-record-tying, nine-game road swing to open the season. Despite their schedule, they’ve tied the best start in team history at 6-2-1 and can reclaim the league’s overall top spot with a win today.
Today’s game begins a four-game home stand for the Checkers, who will play 12 of their next 16 games at Time Warner Cable Arena. It’s also the first of four meetings with the Wolves, last season’s Midwest Division champions who are also at 6-2-1 to start the season, with another scheduled to take place on Tuesday. Chicago took a narrow edge in last season's eight-game series with a record of 5-3-0.
The Checkers may have one or two things they hope to tweak coming into this game, but overall, the message from coach Jeff Daniels is simple.
“Don’t change anything,” he said.
“We can’t come back home and be worried about putting on a show.”
If they stick to what worked on the road, that might happen anyway. Up until losing their most recent game by a 5-4 score in Milwaukee on Wednesday, the Checkers had out-scored their opposition 16-0 over a span of 167 minutes of game action, including back-to-back shutouts in Peoria over the weekend. The Checkers come into the game with the league’s second-best offense (an average of four goals per game), its best power play (33.3 percent) and some of its top individual performers at every position.
“We’ve got off to a good start a team and everyone’s been very consistent,” said Drayson Bowman, who ranks second in the league with eight goals, all of which have come during an active seven-game streak. “Everyone has a lot of confidence, and it just seems like that makes a lot of space out there.”
Charlotte does have a recurring hockey theme in mind, an often-seen sag in the first game back after a long road trip. However, they feel that the buzz from the long-awaited home opener should prevent that from becoming a factor.
“A lot of times in hockey there’s a little bit of a letdown in your first game back for whatever reason, but guys will be excited to play for the first time at home,” said Bowman.
With Dan Ellis getting the team’s most recent start, Justin Peters, coming off a 19-save shutout in Peoria one week ago today, should get the nod for the home opener. The team should have a clean bill of health at every position, with defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti recovered from the illness that kept him out of his last game. However, forward Chris Terry, last season's leading scorer will serve the final game of a three-game suspension for elbowing.
As excited as the Checkers are about their start, today’s opponents should be feeling much the same way.
Thanks to a 6-3 win at Rockford on Friday, the Wolves sit level on points with Charlotte after nine games. A key difference is that they’ve played five more home games than the Checkers, where they’ve posted a record of 4-0-1, including a sweep of a three-game home stand to start the season. Over their last five games, the Wolves are 2-2-1.
As could be said for many teams around the AHL at the moment, a pair of first-round NHL draft picks lead the Wolves in scoring. Zack Kassian, who Buffalo chose with the 13th overall pick in 2009 before trading him to Vancouver along with current Checkers defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani, leads the way with seven points in nine outings. Jordan Schroeder, a returning player who the Canucks selected with their own first-round choice that same draft, has six.
In goal, Eddie Lack has started seven of the team’s nine games, posting a 2.78 goals-against average and .910 save percentage. Lack was outstanding against the Checkers last season, going 4-2-0 with a 1.82 goals-against average and .947 save percentage, including a shutout performance in February when he and John Muse went toe-to-toe in a 0-0 game that the Wolves went on to win in the shootout.
The Wolves have a familiar name on defense in the form of Derek Joslin, who spent the last two seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes and played four games on a conditioning stint with the Checkers last season. The Hurricanes bought out Joslin’s contract over the summer, making him free to sign with Vancouver, where he has two assists for the team’s AHL affiliate thus far.
Despite their identical records, special teams could be a key difference between Charlotte and Chicago. The Wolves' power play checks in at 26th in the league (9.1 percent) and the penalty kill at 28th (72.1 percent) while both of the Checkers' units rank in the top six.
The Checkers' 6-2-1 start (13 points) ties the best start in the team's three AHL seasons, matching an identical record that the team posted in its first nine games last season. Despite being the only team in the league that has yet to play a home game, the Checkers lead the South Division by two points.
Forward Drayson Bowman has scored in each of the Checkers' last seven games, including a two-goal performance in Rockford on Oct. 20, to set a new team record. He is now ranks second in the league with eight total goals, two fewer than Abbotsford's Roman Horak, who recorded a natural hat trick on Saturday. Bowman's seven-game streak the longest posted by any player in the league this season and longest since Norfolk's Tyler Johnson scored in nine consecutive games in March of last season. Bowman recorded a power-play goal in four consecutive games between Oct. 19 and Oct. 26, tying him for the AHL lead with four power-play goals. Bowman is already nearly halfway to his AHL career high of 17 goals, set during his rookie season back in 2009-10.
With 11 and nine points, respectively, defensemen Justin Faulk and Marc-Andre Gragnani are two of four Checkers to average a point-per-game or higher (Drayson Bowman, Zach Boychuk) and are tied for the AHL lead with nine assists apiece.
Faulk, a member of the NHL's All-Rookie team last season, leads the team and ranks tied for fourth in the AHL with 11 points, eight of which have come during an active four-game point streak. Faulk, who missed one game due to injury and another due to rest, has already recorded four multi-point games, including two separate three-point performances.
On Oct. 26 in Grand Rapids, Gragnani tied team records for most assists and most points in a single game (four), marking the third time a Checkers player has recorded a four-assist game and eighth time a Checkers has recorded a four-point game. Gragnani leads the AHL in power-play assists (seven) and is tied for the league lead in power-play points (seven).
Despite failing to score a power-play goal for the first time in nine games in Milwaukee on Wednesday, Charlotte still leads the AHL with a 33.3 percent success rate on the man advantage (15 goals on 45 chances) and boasts some of the league's top individual performers in Drayson Bowman (most goals - 4), Zach Boychuk (tied for most points - 7) and Marc-Andre Gragnani (most assists and tied for most points - 7). In Grand Rapids on Friday, Charlotte's four power-play goals tied a franchise best for a single game, which was set twice during the 2010-11 season. Ten different Checkers have scored at least one power-play goal, which is at least two more than any other AHL team.
Checkers forward Zach Boychuk has scored points in seven of the team's nine games (5g, 4a). Now in his fourth professional season, Boychuk, a first-round pick in 2008, is tied with Drayson Bowman for the lead among all Checkers forwards in scoring and is tied for first in the AHL with seven power-play points.
Despite not having any goals as recently as two games ago, Checkers captain Brett Sutter is now tied for third on the team with four on the season. Sutter began his surge with the first hat trick in his six professional seasons in Peoria on Sunday, just the third in team history, before adding another goal in Milwaukee on Wednesday. Last season, Sutter set a new career high with 13 goals, three more than he scored with Quad City in 2008-09.
The Checkers concluded their team-record-tying, nine-game road swing with a record of 6-2-1, a record that also ties the best nine-game start in franchise history. That gives them three more points than their only other nine-game swing, a 5-4-0 run in October and November of last season.
Drayson Bowman has goals and points in each of his last seven games (Oct. 19-31; 8g, 1a)
Justin Faulk has assists and points in each of his last four games (Oct. 21-31; 2g, 6a)
Chris Terry has points in each of his last three games (Oct. 21-27; 3g, 1a)
Brett Sutter has goals and points in each of his last two games (Oct. 28-31; 4g, 0a)
Michal Jordan has assists and points in each of his last two games (Oct. 28-31; 0g, 3a)
Chris Terry has missed the last two games due to a three-game suspension for elbowing