The Checkers finish up the pre-holiday portion of their schedule with back-to-back games against the Peoria Rivermen starting tonight.
The game will pit two of the AHL’s hottest teams against one another, with the Checkers having won four straight compared to Peoria’s five. The teams have already met four previous times this season, with the Checkers winning all four to extend their overall winning streak against Peoria to seven games.
The contests against Peoria also conclude a very busy home portion of the schedule, with 12 of 13 Checkers games taking place in Charlotte between Nov. 24 and Dec. 21. With the next “home” game actually taking place in Raleigh on Jan. 6, following these games, the Checkers will not play another game at Time Warner Cable Arena until Jan. 16.
What’s been a season of dramatic ups and downs is currently where the Checkers would prefer to be, with the team having the chance to tie the longest winning streak in its three-season AHL history tonight. Their consecutive wins against Milwaukee, Houston (twice) and San Antonio already have them on their longest streak of this season.
Still, it’s not the first time the team has been on a roll, having begun the season with a record of 12-3-2. This time, they’ll hope to keep their feet on the gas pedal rather than slump to something close to the team-record, five-game losing streak they went through in between hot stretches.
“We don’t want to be known as a streaky team,” said scoring leader Zach Boychuk, who has five assists in his last four games.
“We obviously played harder and paid more attention to the details of our system,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “We got away from it for a while there but now we’re back to doing what we need to do.”
After winning many of their games thanks to what was the league’s No. 1 offense earlier in the season, the team’s defense was been primarily responsible for recent victories. The Checkers have allowed just four goals in their last four games, giving up 23 or fewer shots on goal each time.
“It’s a product of doing what we need to do,” said Daniels. “We’ve stressed from day one that we need to be a good defensive team. Lately we haven’t been cheating, we’ve been taking a hit to make the right play and as a result we haven’t spent as much time in our defensive zone.”
Justin Peters was in goal for three of the four games of the current streak, allowing just two goals during that time. With him starting the last two, that makes it likely that partner Dan Ellis will get the nod tonight.
Marc-Andre Gragnani is questionable to play on defense, having missed the last two practice days. Gragnani, who has already missed eight games this season due to illness and a lower-body injury, scored the game-winning goal on Sunday, his first of the season.
Given the Checkers’ recent success against them, one might expect them to be salivating at the prospect of two more games against Peoria on the schedule. However, their recent games suggest they won’t be pushovers.
Not only is Peoria’s five-game streak the second-longest active run in the league, but it includes some wins over tough opponents, including Houston, Oklahoma City and Grand Rapids. After going through a seven-game losing streak that included four losses to the Checkers earlier in the season, they’re now very much in contention for the top spot in a tight Midwest Division race.
Still, they’ll have recent history working against them, as they’ve been unable to beat the Checkers in the last seven meetings dating back to March 21 of last season. Though the two most recent meetings in Charlotte were closer, the Checkers have out-scored the Rivermen 35-10 over the life of the streak, including back-to-back shutout wins in Peoria on Oct. 27 and 28. The 6-0 win on Oct. 28 that featured Brett Sutter’s first career hat trick was one of just four games decided by six or more goals in the AHL this season.
Having struggled offensively earlier in the season, Peoria has discovered its scoring touch of late, scoring three or more goals in each game of their five-game streak. AHL All-Star T.J. Hensick is once again approaching a point-per-game pace (25 in 27), including four in his last four games, while top rookie Jaden Schwartz has points in his last eight road games dating back to Nov. 14.
After Jake Allen appeared in 14 of the team’s first 16 games, the Rivermen have begun to split the workload between him and Mike McKenna over the last few weeks. Both goalies carry personal three-game winning streaks into tonight’s game, with Allen having made 23 saves to secure the 4-3 shootout win over Hamilton on Tuesday.
The Checkers have won each of their last four games, marking their longest winning streak of the season. The team had previously posted two three-game streaks while jumping out to a 12-3-2 start, including wins from Oct. 26-28 and from Nov 8-16. A win in their next game against Peoria on Thurday would tie team's longest in three seasons as an AHL franchise, a five-game streak set from Nov. 20-30, 2011.
The four-game streak is tied with Chicago's for the third-longest active run in the league. Only Peoria (five games) and Portland (six) have longer active streaks, with Binghamton's nine-game streak from Nov. 10-Dec. 7 the longest posted by any AHL team this season.
Shutting the Door
After their 3-0 win over Houston on Saturday, the Checkers rank tied for third in the AHL with four shutouts as a team, with only Abbotsford and Springfield (5) having more. Additionally, goalies Dan Ellis and Justin Peters, who have split the workload evenly this season, are one of two sets of teammates that have at least two shutouts apiece, joining Abbotsford's Barry Brust (3) and Danny Taylor (2).
Ellis, who recently extended his tryout contract with Charlotte, ranks sixth in the AHL with a .926 save percentage and is 12th with a 2.39 goals-against average. Meanwhile, Peters allowed a total of two goal over his last three starts, causing his goals-against average to drop from 3.05 to 2.56 in just six days' time. As a team, the Checkers rank sixth with a 2.64 goals-against average.
During the team's current four-game win streak, the Checkers have allowed just four total goals, the lowest of any four-game stretch for the team this season. The same could be said of the 89 total shots allowed during that time, which included consistent efforts of 21, 22 and 23 and 23 shots allowed.
In the Driver's Seat
The Checkers' back-to-back wins against second-place Houston on Friday and Saturday allowed it to keep the top spot in the South Division. The team has held that honor since winning at Rockford on Oct. 20, a span of 60 days. They currently lead Houston by four points.
Boychuk Dishes it Out
After taking 13 games to record his first five assists of the season, Checkers forward Zach Boychuk now has that many over his last four outings (0g, 5a), tying the longest assist streak of his professional career. The assist streak is also tied for the second-longest active streak in the AHL, trailing Hershey forward Jeff Taffe's seven-game streak.
Having made more of an impact with his goal scoring up until this point, Boychuk ranks second on the team and tied for sixth in the AHL with 13 goals, while ranking tied for second with six power-play goals and tied for third with four game-winning goals. His 24 points in 28 games lead the team and have him tied for 16th in overall AHL scoring.
Bowman Fires Away
Drayson Bowman's shorthanded goal on Sunday gave him sole possesion of the team lead and tied him with Oklahoma City defenseman Justin Schultz for fourth in the AHL with 14 total goals. The goal was the second career shorthanded goal for Bowman, who ranks tied for second in the league with six on the power play this season. Bowman, who leads the Checkers and is ranked fourth in the league with 91 shots on goal, is now just three goals away from tying his AHL career high set during the 2009-10 season.
Heating up at Home
After dropping a team-record five consecutive home games from Nov. 24-Dec. 6, the Checkers have won four of their last five at Time Warner Cable Arena, including an active-three game winning streak at home that is tied for the longest active streak in the league. The Checkers are now 7-7-0 at home this season and 10-2-2 on the road, where they also have an active three-game win streak.
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. Marc-Andre Gragnani then scored the game-winning goal on the man advantage on Sunday, giving the team power-play goals in back-to-back games for the first time since Nov. 25-Dec. 1. Together with their fifth-ranked penalty kill (87.0 percent), the Checkers are the only AHL team with both of their special teams units ranked in the league's top five.
The Checkers, who rank third in the AHL with a 21.4 percent success rate on the man advantage, have three of the league's top individual performers in forwards Drayson Bowman and Zach Boychuk, who are tied for second in the AHL with six goals apiece, and defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani, who is tied for second with 10 assists. Additoinally, Boychuk is tied for fourth in the league with 13 total power-play points (6g, 7a).
- Zach Boychuk has assists and points in each of his last four games (Dec. 11-16; 0g, 5a)
- Marc-Andre Gragnani has points in each of his last three games (Dec. 14-16; 1g, 2a)
- Justin Peters has won each of his last three starts (Dec.11-16)
- Bobby Sanguinetti has assists and points in each of his last two games (Dec. 15-16; 0g, 2a)