With their 10-game home stand in the books, the Checkers play their first road game since Nov. 21 when they take on the San Antonio Rampage tonight.
The Checkers, who won their first two meetings against the Rampage this season, both of which came in San Antonio on Nov. 16 and Nov. 18, will be going for their fourth win in a row tonight. That run started when they beat Milwaukee on Tuesday and continued with back-to-back wins against Houston on Friday and Saturday to increase their South Division lead to four points.
A fourth win a row tonight would be the Checkers’ longest streak of the season, edging out two three-game streaks earlier in the season.
It wasn’t long ago that the Checkers were close to “rock bottom,” as forward Tim Wallace put it, following a team-record, five-game losing streak to start their home stand and a 5-2 loss to Milwaukee last Sunday that came just when it looked like the team was starting to get back on track.
All of the sudden, it looks like they’re doing just that, as three straight wins, two of which came against one of the hottest teams in the league and its main divisional challenger at the time, Houston, have them in a position to sweep a three-in-three set for the second time in team history and the second time this season.
“We’re getting back to the way we were when we were winning,” said rookie forward Jeremy Welsh, who had a goal and an assist on Saturday. “Sometimes you start think you’re pretty skilled and it’s going to come easy. It’s a good reminder to have early in the year.”
“In the last few games we’ve definitely got back to our game plan and played within our system,” said goalie Justin Peters, who earned his second shutout of the season on Saturday. “We see the results that happen when we play the right way.”
Tonight’s game will conclude a weekend of highly unusual scheduling, with the Checkers facing Houston twice in 17 hours thanks to Saturday’s noon start at Time Warner Cable Arena before immediately heading to the airport en route to San Antonio. Other than single-game bus trips to regional rival Norfolk, tonight’s game is the Checkers’ only one-game road trip of the entire season.
However, with San Antonio also playing a three-in-three that included a road game on Saturday night, both teams will have their work cut out for them.
“There’s no excuses,” said Welsh. “With them getting in late tonight, it should be a pretty even playing field.”
The Checkers are expected to use Dan Ellis, who picked up a shootout win on Friday, in goal. Defensemen Justin Faulk may not play the third game of the three-in-three set, continuing a trend from earlier in the season, while Rasmus Rissanen could make his return from an upper-body injury in his stead.
The Rampage have gone through the same kind of severe ups and downs as the Checkers have over the last few weeks, albeit in different order.
Since winning four in a row from Dec. 4 to Dec. 9, the Rampage have now lost three straight, all on the road, including two to the Oklahoma City Barons on Friday and Saturday. They gave up five goals in each of those losses, having been out-scored by a combined 15-5 margin.
Coach Chuck Weber has been very critical of his team during its current slide, particularly during an interview given to team broadcaster Dan Weiss
after the 5-1 loss to the Barons on Friday.
"We had more guys last night that looked like they belonged in the ECHL than the NHL,” said Weber. “We had a lot of cheat in our game last night. We had a lack of effort. And to be honest at times I didn't know who that group was.”
Though they still fell 5-3 in Saturday’s rematch with the Barons, a huge plus was the play of NHL veteran Jon Sim, who joined the team on a tryout contract two weeks ago. Sim scored all three of his team’s goals, giving him four in his last two games, but was still upstaged by the Barons’ Jordan Eberle, who scored four.
Sim, a 35-year-old who has 139 points in 469 career NHL games, joined the team at the same time as 34-year-old defenseman Mike Mottau, who split last season between the New York Islanders and the Boston Bruins.
In goal, top Florida Panthers prospect Jacob Markstrom is the reigning AHL Player of the Week, having allowed just seven goals during the team’s previous four-game win streak. With partner Dov Grumet-Morris getting last night’s start, Markstrom, who has a 2.94 goals-against average and .908 save percentage for the season, should get the nod today.
The Checkers have won each of their last three games, tying two previous streaks for their longest of the season. The wins come just one week after the team set a new record with a five-game losing streak from Nov. 24-Dec. 6. A four-game winning streak would be the team's longest since a team-record five-game streak set from Nov. 20-30 of last season.
The Checkers have allowed just three total goals during their streak, which is the lowest of any three-game stretch for the team this season. The same could be said of the 66 total shots allowed during that time, which included consistent efforts of 21, 22 and 23 shots allowed.
Shutting the Door
After their 3-0 win over Houston on Saturday, the Checkers rank tied for second in the AHL with four shutouts as a team, with only Springfield (5) having more. Additionally, goalies Dan Ellis and Justin Peters, who have split the workload evenly this season, are the only teammates that have at least two shutouts apiece, as only five AHL goalies currently have more shutouts.
Ellis, who recently extended his tryout contract with Charlotte, ranks fifth in the AHL with a .926 save percentage and is tied for 10th with a 2.39 goals-against average. Meanwhile, Peters allowed a total of one goal over his last two starts to improve to 9-4-0 on the season.
The Checkers are in the midst of their fourth of seven three-in-three sets this season, having won Game One with a 3-2 shootout win over Houston on Friday and Game Two with a 3-0 victory in Saturday's rematch. That has the team in position to win all three games for just the second time in 19 attempts over the last three seasons, with their only sweep coming earlier this season from Oct. 26-28.
The Checkers are a combined 9-1-1 record in games that are part of a three-in-three set this season, including an undefeated 4-0-0 mark in Game One. All time, the Checkers are 34-20-5 in three-in-three games, including a 11-7-2 record in Game One, a 14-3-3 record in Game Two and an 9-10-0 record in Game Three.
The Checkers' current three-in-three set is one of two this season that take place partially at home and partially on the road. The other five all take place entirely on the road.
Home Stand Comes to a Close
The Checkers concluded a team-record, 10-game home stand on Friday, having won the last three games to secure a record of 4-6-0. The team had lost the first five games of that home stand, setting team records for longest overall losing streak and longest losing streak at home, both five games. The Checkers are now 7-7-0 at home and 9-2-2 on the road.
Jeremy Welsh's power play goal against Houston on Saturday ended a four-game, 0-for-13 drought for the Checkers, which was the team's longest of the season. During that time, they relinquished the title of having the league's most potent power play, with Welsh's goal putting them third with a 21.6 percent success rate. Since scoring multiple power-play goals in five of their first eight games, the Checkers have not scored two in the same game since Oct. 28, a span of 18 games.
The Checkers still have three of the AHL's top individual performers on the power play in forwards Drayson Bowman and Zach Boychuk, who are tied for the league lead with six goals apiece, and defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani, who is tied for second with 10 assists. Together with their fourth-ranked penalty kill (86.6 percent), the Checkers are the only AHL team with both of their special teams units ranked in the league's top five.
- Zach Boychuk has assists and points in each of his last three games (Dec. 11-15; 0g, 4a)
- Marc-Andre Gragnani has assists and points in each of his last two games (Dec. 14-15; 0g, 2a)
- Justin Peters has won each of his last two starts (Dec.11-15)
- Rasmus Rissanen (upper body - 12/2) - missed six games