The Checkers begin a set of back-to-back games in against the Monsters in Lake Erie tonight.
Charlotte will be looking to get back in the win column after building a three-game winless streak (0-2-1) in their return from the holiday break last weekend. What began with an overtime loss that actually extended the team’s point streak to a franchise-record-trying six games concluded with two regulation losses, cementing the only winless three-in-three weekend in team history.
Tonight and tomorrow’s games will conclude the four-game season series between Charlotte and Lake Erie that began in early December. The teams split those games, with Lake Erie winning on Dec. 6 to hand the Checkers their team-record fifth consecutive loss before the home team rebounded with a thrilling 5-1 victory on Dec. 7.
Having hoped to put a streaky start to the season behind them after busting out of their early-December losing streak with authority as the month continued, the Checkers are once again looking to get back on track this week.
Lest observers be concerned that his team was falling back into the malaise that characterized their earlier struggles when they last met Lake Erie, coach Jeff Daniels said that the two stretches weren’t comparable.
“I’m not happy from a points standpoint, but I thought we played OK,” said Daniels of the team’s recent three-game stretch against Houston, Texas and San Antonio. “We didn’t get the wins, but we played a lot better than we did a few weeks ago.”
They won’t be playing another South Division team until visiting Oklahoma City next weekend, but getting back on track against Lake Erie will be a priority with only three points separating the first-place Checkers and fourth-place Texas in what's been the AHL’s most competitive division thus far.
“We’ve got to find a way to stay consistent,” said forward Tim Wallace.
Although each had an injury scare in the 5-2 loss to San Antonio on Sunday, forwards Nicolas Blanchard and Zach Boychuk are expected to play tonight. Defense is a different story, with Marc-Andre Gragnani and Rasmus Rissanen not making the three-game trip that also includes a “home” game against Norfolk at Raleigh’s PNC Arena on Sunday.
As such, at least one of rookie Tommi Kivisto, a Carolina Hurricanes prospect, and tryout signing Bobby Raymond, both recently of the ECHL’s Florida Everblades, will be in the lineup tonight.
“They’re two guys that haven’t played here a lot this year,” said Daniels. “It’s just a matter of throwing them into the fire and them taking advantage of the opportunity.”
Justin Peters has played in six of the Checkers’ last seven games, including the most recent game in San Antonio. He started that run by stopping 81 of 83 shots against, but has since allowed eight goals on 52 attempts by the opposition. Dan Ellis stopped 28 of 31 against Texas on Saturday.
The Monsters’ 5-1 loss to Charlotte on Dec. 7 ended up being the first of a four-game losing streak, though they have since rebounded by winning four of their last six games. All four of those wins came at home, including a 4-0 shutout of Hamilton in their most recent game on Saturday.
That game was seemingly as lopsided as the final score would suggest, with Lake Erie holding a 47-17 advantage in shots on goal. The Monsters’ Calvin Pickard recorded his third shutout of the season, which proved to be a nice rebound from having given up eight goals on 31 shots against over his last two outings, one of which came in relief of teammate Sami Aittokallio in a loss to Rochester on Friday.
Aittokallio played both games against Charlotte earlier this season, going 1-1-0 with a 3.51 goals-against average and .892 save percentage. As a team, the Monsters rank 28th in the league with an average of 3.24 goals allowed per game.
Though the second meeting between tonight's opponents was a runaway win for the Checkers, Daniels is expecting this week’s match-ups to be more evenly contested, as has been typical of prior engagements over the last two seasons, including Lake Erie’s 3-2 win on Dec. 6.
“They’re a hard-working team,” said Daniels. “They’ve got some young players that can’t put up points and some guys who can move the puck from the d-zone. They’re usually close games, but that’s no different than most of our games.”
To Daniels’ point, forwards Mike Sgarbossa and Andrew Agozzino rank third and fourth in rookie scoring with 27 and 25 points, respectively. From the blue line, Tyson Barrie (fourth with 25 points) and Thomas Pock (t-15th with 15) are in the top 15 in scoring among defensemen. Sgarbossa has a six-game point streak at home (eight points total), tied for the second-longest active streak in the league, while Barrie's five-game home assists streak (six assists) is tied for the longest in the AHL.
Agozzino, an undrafted 22-year-old who did record a point in either game against Charlotte, has enjoyed a breakout in the interim, scoring 10 points (3g, 7a) in a seven-game point streak that just ended Saturday.
The Checkers set a new franchise record by firing 26 shots in a single period at San Antonio on Sunday. The barrage came during the third period of a 5-2 loss against the Rampage, during which the Checkers scored twice against goalie Jacob Markstrom. The period tied one other occurrence (Norfok's first period on Nov. 3) for the most taken by any AHL team in any period this season. It was also just the third time a team has taken 26 or more shots in one period in the league's last three seasons.
The game marked the second time Charlotte had taken 50 or more shots in its last five outings, the first of which came when it set a franchise record by firing 54 at Peoria's Mike McKenna on Dec. 20. Markstrom's 49-save effort on Sunday was the second time the Checkers faced one of the AHL's top four goaltending performances this season (in terms of saves made) in a 10-day period.
The Checkers now rank second in the league with an average of 33.3 shots per game. They rank 12th in goals per game at 3.06.
A Year to Remember
Checkers defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti finished with 58 points (15g, 43a) during the calendar year of 2012, which is more than any other AHL defenseman during that time. Sanguinetti, who finished the 2011-12 campaign with 44 points in his last 44 games, has 19 points (5g, 14a) in 32 games to rank tied for 13th in league scoring among defenseman this season.
Five of Sanguinetti's points, including three of his goals, have come in the Checkers' last seven games. Zach Boychuk (8 points) is the only Checker to score more points during that time.
Dating back to Dec. 7, the Checkers have scored on just three of of their last 41 power-play opportunities (7.3 percent). Over the course of that time, they have fallen from the league's top power play at 24.0 percent to their current ranking of eighth at 19.0 percent. The team ended a season-long, 0-for-18 drought when Bobby Sanguinetti scored just as a five-on-three power play expired at in the third period of a 5-2 loss to San Antonio last Sunday. The goal was part of a 1-for-7 performance on the night.
In the Driver's Seat
The Checkers have held the top spot in the South Division since winning at Rockford on Oct. 20, a span of 73 days. They currently lead the second-place Houston Aeros by one point and are only three points ahead of fourth-place Oklahoma City. The Checkers are 6-4-3 in divisional play this season, having played by far the fewest inter-divisional games of any South team to this point.
- Marc-Andre Gragnani has points in each of his last three games (Dec. 14-16; 1g, 2a)
- Rasmus Rissanen (upper body, Dec. 28) - missed two games
- Marc-Andre Gragnani (lower body, Dec. 16) - missed five games