Milwaukee took game one on Sunday, defeating Charlotte by a score of 5-2 and sending the Checkers to their sixth defeat in the first seven games of their 10-game home stand. The Admirals now have a 2-1-0 lead in the eight-game season series between the two former Midwest Division rivals.
Following tonight’s game, the Checkers conclude their home stretch with back-to-back games against Houston on Friday and Saturday before completing the three-in-three set in San Antonio on Sunday.
Just when it seemed as though the Checkers had snapped out of their funk by breaking a team-record, five-game losing streak with a 5-1 win over Lake Erie on Friday, a lackluster defeat to the Admirals two days later sent them back to the drawing board.
“We’re saying all the right things, but at the end of the day, talk is cheap,” said team captain Brett Sutter, who has three goals in the last four games. “It’s a matter of doing, and we’ve got to work a lot harder than we are right now.”
The loss continued what’s been a home stand to forget thus far, assuring that they’ll finish under .500 for the 10-game segment even if they win the remaining three games. However, they aren’t far removed from a much better effort that represented one of their most exciting wins of the season, even if they weren’t able to build on it in their next game.
“We saw what we did on Friday,” said Sutter. “When we play with speed, courage and intensity, we’re a tough team to beat.”
Goalie Justin Peters would seem to be in line for a start in goal after Dan Ellis started each of the team’s last two games. However, given the team’s recent struggles, Daniels could again deviate from his previously-established rotation at any time. Tonight’s game is the last of Ellis’ 25-game tryout contract, though it could be renewed at any time.
“Over the last two weeks we haven’t been good as a team, and we wanted to switch things up to get some momentum going,” said Daniels of his decision to hand Ellis back-to-back starts for the first time this season.
Forward Justin Shugg is in line to make his season debut for the Checkers after the team recalled him from ECHL Florida on Monday. Shugg, who spent roughly half of last season with Charlotte before the lockout numbers game caused him to start the season with the Everblades, has eight points (6g, 2a) in his last four games at the ECHL level, including his first professional hat trick on Saturday.
Forward A.J. Jenks, who only recently returned from a two-game conditioning stint with Florida, went back to the Everblades in a simultaneous transaction. Defenseman Rasmus Rissanen¸ who has missed the last three games due to a personal matter, could be available to return tonight.
Update: Shugg will play in place of Jerome Samson, who is a healthy scratch along with Justin Soryal. Peters will get the start in goal, while Rissanen will miss the game due to injury.
The Admirals have proven to be a tough obstacle for the Checkers of late, having won five of the last six meetings. In addition to a 6-1 win in the final game of last season that cost Charlotte a playoff spot, that run includes three in a row at Time Warner Cable Arena.
“They came in and played a good, solid road game like they always do in Milwaukee,” said Sutter of Sunday’s game. “We couldn’t match their level.”
Forward Michael Latta was the star of Sunday’s game, having assisted on three of his team’s five goals. He now leads the team with 11 assists and ranks tied for second in scoring with AHL All-Star Chris Mueller. Rookie forward Austin Watson reinforced his hold on the team’s scoring lead with a goal on Sunday, giving him nine on the season. All nine of his goals have come at even strength, a feat equaled by the Checkers’ Sutter during the same game.
Gabriel Bourque, a forward who has spent significant time with the NHL’s Nashville Predators, scored two goals on Sunday, giving him four in his last four games and three in two meetings with the Checkers this season.
Though rookie Magnus Hellberg is now 4-0-0 on the season, including two wins against the Checkers, the Admirals will almost certainly turn to veteran workhorse Jeremy Smith tonight. Smith, a former Plymouth Whalers teammate of several Checkers, has played in 18 of the team’s 22 games this season but has recorded just six wins despite superior numbers to those of Hellberg.
Smith has sat out just four of the Admirals games this season, two of which were against Charlotte. The Checkers scored four goals on 24 shots against him in Oct. 19’s win in Milwaukee.
Trouble at Home
The Checkers are now 1-6-0 to start their 10-game home stand, the longest in their three AHL seasons. Prior to the current home stand, which ends against Houston on Saturday, the Checkers had points in six consecutive games (5-0-1) and had not lost a game by more than one goal this season, something they've now done five times.
Dating back to last season, the Checkers are 4-11-0 in their last 15 games at Time Warner Cable Arena, having been out-scored 48-17 in their nine losses, including an 8-2 loss to Abbotsford on April 8 and a 7-2 defeat to Oklahoma City on Nov. 25 that marked the team's most lopsided losses in each season.
The Checkers are now 4-7-0 at home this season and have a 9-2-2 record on the road.
Forward Drayson Bowman recored a Gordie Howe Hat Trick (one goal, one assist and one fight) on Friday, marking the first of his four-year professional career. Bowman became the second Checker to accomplish the rare feat, joining Brad Herauf, who had one goal, one assist and one fight in a 10-3 win against Syracuse on Dec. 6, 2010, exactly two years and one day prior to Bowman's effort. Aside from Bowman, the only other active Checker to record a Gordie Howe Hat Trick is Tim Wallace, who did so in Bridgeport's 5-4 overtime loss to Manchester on Nov. 27 of last season.
Anything You Can Do...
Forwards Drayson Bowman and Zach Boychuk have exchanged ownership of the team's goal-scoring lead throughout the season. Bowman, who set a team record with goals in eight consecutive games earlier in the campaign, shot out to an early lead before Boychuk scored in five consecutive home games to surge ahead. Thanks to Bowman's goals in two of the team's last three games, the two are currently tied with 13 goals apiece, ranking tied for third in the AHL. Both players are on pace to shatter their AHL career highs of 22 goals (Boychuk) and 17 goals (Bowman) while breaking Chris Terry's team record of 34 goals from the 2010-11 season.
After scoring three times in his last four games, Checkers captain Brett Sutter ranks third on the team with nine goals. That has him on pace for 28, a mark that would easily top his career high of 13 set last season. All nine of Sutter's goals have come at even strength, making him the Checkers' leader and tying him for fourth in the league in even-strength goals.
Next to Nicolas Blanchard (366 games), Sutter, now in his sixth pro season, is the second-most-experienced AHL player on the Checkers' roster (359 games).
One of the league's least-penalized teams throughout the season, the Checkers participated in a season-high four fights as they snapped their team-record, five-game losing streak against Lake Erie on Friday. Coming into that game, the Checkers had just 12 major penalties in 22 games, tied for third-fewest in the league. Checkers' all-time penalty minute leader Nicolas Blanchard, who also leads the team with 59 penalty minutes this season and is on pace for a career high of 186 this season, has led the charge with two fights in his last two games.
The Checkers' five game losing streak from Nov. 24-Dec. 6 was the longest in the team's three AHL seasons, eclipsing three previous four-game slides. The streak, which began with the first back-to-back losses the Checkers had suffered all season, was the second-longest losing streak posted by any AHL team this season. With all five losses coming at home, the streak also set a new team record for most consecutive losses at home, tying Manchester's five-game slide for the longest home losing streak in the AHL this season.
The Checkers have three of the AHL's top individual performers on the power play in forwards Drayson Bowman and Zach Boychuk and defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani. Bowman and Boychuk are tied for the AHL lead with six power-play goals apiece, while Gragnani, who has missed eight games this season due to illness and injury, is tied for second in the league with nine power-play assists. The Checkers rank second in the AHL with a 22.3 percent success rate on the man advantage.
Brett Sutter has goals and points in each of his last two games (Dec. 7-9; 2g, 0a).