On Sunday, Charlotte emerged victorious from its home opener with a 4-1 win against the Wolves that allowed it to reclaim the AHL’s best record at 7-2-1. As has been the case often during the team’s best start, Drayson Bowman, Zach Boychuk and Justin Faulk starred as the team improved on the best start in its three AHL seasons.
Tonight’s game will be the second of four meetings between Charlotte and Chicago this season and the last at Time Warner Cable Arena. The Checkers, who host back-to-back games against Peoria starting Thursday, visit Chicago once in February and once April.
Now that the Checkers began their home stand with the same kind of success that they enjoyed on their nine-game road swing to start the season, they’ll be aiming to keep it up even further now that the home opener is out of the way.
“We’ve talked enough about not getting caught up in our start and thinking that’s going to be easy now that we’re home,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “We’ve got this four-in-six now and then some time to recover after that, so we’re just trying to keep our energy level up for each game.”
That plan of action included a quick practice on Monday’s off day that featured the return of defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani, who missed the home opener with an illness. Daniels said that Gragnani, who ranks tied for second in the league in assists behind Faulk and leads the league in power-play assists, will be available to play tonight.
In addition, the Checkers will welcome the return of forward Chris Terry, who missed the last three games due to an elbowing suspension that came as the result of an elbowing incident in Grand Rapids on Jan. 26. Charlotte fared well in Terry’s absence, scoring 14 total goals when he was out, but his all-around contributions in all situations will be a welcome boost.
“You find room,” said Daniels of working Terry back into the lineup. “He’s been our leading scorer the last couple of years, but we’re not a team that relies on just one or two lines and I think we’ve shown that so far. He’s another piece of the puzzle.”
Terry’s return may move Brett Sutter, who scored all five of his goals on the season during Terry’s absence, back to center from the wing. During the suspension, Sutter, whose three-game goal streak is the longest in the AHL aside from Bowman’s eight, passed Terry for third on the team in goals.
Sunday’s Checkers win broke a tie with Chicago in the standings, as both teams entered that game with identical 6-2-1 records. The Wolves, now 6-3-1, have suffered all three of those regulation losses within their last six games played, falling by a 4-1 score each time to put a dent in their 4-0-0 start to the campaign.
Though the Checkers and Wolves played each other eight times last season when both called the Midwest Division home (the Checkers have since moved on to the South), a new coach and a handful of players still made Sunday’s game a feeling-out process, as evidenced by a scoreless and largely uneventful first period.
“They have a lot of new faces like (Zack) Kassian, (Brett) Sterling, (Andre) Ebbett, and I could go on and on,” said Daniels of Chicago, which replaced former NHL head coach Craig MacTavish with another former NHL coach in Scott Arniel over the summer. “They’ve got good young players and also have a veteran presence.”
Sterling, a three-time AHL All-Star who spent the bulk of last season with another Midwest team in Peoria, scored the Wolves’ lone goal on Sunday, tying him with Kassian for the team lead with seven points in eight games. In addition to his points, Kassian, a first-round pick in 2009 who Vancouver acquired along with Gragnani via trade last season, leads the team with 22 penalty minutes.
An 0-for-4 performance on the power play Sunday dropped the Wolves to 27th in the league at 8.9 percent, while a 3-for-4 night on the penalty kill put at 28th in the AHL at 72.3 percent.
The Checkers' 7-2-1 start (15 points) is the best start in the team's three AHL seasons, narrowly eclipsing the 6-3-1 record that the team posted in its first 10 games last season. Charlotte now has a one-point lead for the best record in the league and the Western Conference and has a three-point lead in the South Division. Additoinally, the Checkers' +16 goal differential is tied with Springfield for the best in the AHL.
Forward Drayson Bowman has scored in each of the Checkers' last eight 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 nine total goals, one fewer than Abbotsford's Roman Horak, who recorded a natural hat trick on Saturday. Bowman's eight-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 with teammate Zach Boychuk for the AHL lead with four power-play goals. Bowman is already over halfway to his AHL career high of 17 goals, set during his rookie season back in 2009-10.
Faulk on Fire
Defenseman Justin Faulk, a member of the NHL's All-Rookie Team last season, recorded two assists on Sunday to give him 10 points (2g, 8a) during an active five-game point streak and five-game assist streak, the second of which is the longest active streak in the AHL. Faulk, who now ranks second in the AHL in overall scoring, two behind Oklahoma City blueliner Justin Schultz, has now recorded five multi-point outings in just eight games played. Faulk leads the AHL with 11 assists, two more than teammate Marc-Andre Gragnani, who ranks tied for second.
The Checkers went 1-for-4 on the power play against Chicago on Sunday, giving them at least one power play goal in nine of their 10 games played. Charlotte leads the AHL with a 32.7 percent success rate on the man advantage (16 goals on 49 chances), which is nearly eight points higher than second-place Connecticut (25.0 percent).
Though the team has had several contributors (10 different Checkers have scored at least one power-play goal, at least two more than any other AHL team), it also features some of the league's top individual performers on the man advantage. Drayson Bowman and Zach Boychuk are tied for the league lead in goals (4), Marc-Andre Gragnani leads the league in assists (7) and Boychuk is tied for the league lead in total points (8).
Including his goal against Chicago on Sunday, Checkers captain Brett Sutter has now scored in three consecutive games, the longest streak in his six professional seasons. Despite not having scored any goals heading into the game in Peoria on Oct. 27, Sutter's hat trick that night, the first of his career and third in team history, set the stage for a productive week that now has him ranked third on the team with five total goals. Additionally, his shooting percentage of 35.7 ranks third among all AHL skaters. Last season, Sutter set a new career high with 13 goals, three more than he scored with Quad City in 2008-09.
There have been just 11 total goals (for and against) scored in the first periods of Checkers games this season. Meanwhile, there have been 24 total goals in their second periods and 28 total goals in their thirds. No other team has scored as many goals in any period than the Checkers' 18 third-period goals.
A Big Plus
The Checkers' boast three players who are among the league's leaders in plus/minus in various categories. Forward Jerome Samson's +9 rating is tied for fourth among all skaters, Victor Rask's +7 is second among AHL rookies and Brett Bellemore's +8 is tied for third among all defensemen.
Drayson Bowman has goals and points in each of his last eight games (Oct. 19-Nov. 4; 9g, 1a)
Justin Faulk has assists and points in each of his last five games (Oct. 21-Nov. 4; 2g, 8a)
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 three games (Oct. 28-Nov. 4; 5g, 0a)
Justin Peters has wins in each of his last two games (Oct. 28-Nov. 4)
Jerome Samson is one point away from 100 as a Checker
Zach Boychuk is one goal away from 50 as a Checker