For most Checkers players, Sunday’s game won’t quite be the “home” game that it’s listed to be on the schedule.
Still, for some, the game at Raleigh’s PNC Arena, home of the parent Carolina Hurricanes, is sure to bring back some memories.
“It’s good to be back,” said Zach Boychuk, who played 72 NHL games with Carolina over the last three seasons.
Boychuk, the Checkers’ scoring leader who recorded his first NHL goal in that building against Martin Brodeur on Feb. 13, 2010, is one of a handful of players to spend significant time with the Hurricanes in the past. Drayson Bowman, Zac Dalpe, Justin Peters and Brett Sutter could say the same.
Defenseman Justin Faulk had seemingly made the transition were good, until circumstances sent him back to Charlotte to stay sharp during the NHL’s ongoing work stoppage. Given that he knows he’ll be back whenever that situation gets resolved, he feels more at home than most, with one small difference.
“We’re at the wrong end of the rink,” he said, referring to the Checkers’ setup in the visiting locker room. Neither team will be set up in the Hurricanes’ remodeled room, which has yet to be used by the Hurricanes themselves.
For those who hoped to be in the NHL at this time, there were certainly some mixed emotions upon first arriving at the rink for Saturday’s practice. Bowman spent most of last season’s second half in Raleigh and, from the current group of Checkers forwards, seemed perhaps most likely to earn a starting spot this season.
“It will be weird,” he said. “There’s nothing you can do about it, but I’m just excited to play in front of the fans in this rink.”
That excitement was apparent on Saturday, with the team spending about an hour on the ice despite having played two road games in each of the last two nights in Cleveland. Most of that was after coaches had stopped running drills, as players knew they were under the watchful eyes of Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller, assistant coach John MacLean and others in the team’s hockey operations department.
“You want to show the fans in Raleigh what the future brings, and obviously there’s going to be a lot of Hurricanes people watching,” said Boychuk. “I thought we had a lot of jump at practice, which was surprising after the back-to-backs. Guys are excited about this.”
Checkers coach Jeff Daniels acknowledged the different atmosphere, nothing that, regardless of location, the timing of the team’s upcoming games could be crucial with the NHL and NHLPA approaching the make-or-break point in their negotiations that will determine whether there will or won’t be a season.
“The most important thing is winning the game and staying on track, but guys hear the rumblings about the lockout and things like that,” said Daniels. “It’s a chance to get up and make that good impression.
“We just have to go out and play our game. We don’t have to put on a show.”
The Checkers are coming off their first win five games, having defeated Lake Erie by a 4-0 score on Friday. While continuing to perform well defensively and in goal, with Justin Peters earning the shutout, it was the long-awaited offensive breakout that sealed the victory.
“I was telling them before the game that it was just a matter of time before we broke out for four or five,” said Daniels, whose team finally got on the board to break a scoreless tie via Riley Nash’s goal midway through the second period. “It didn’t look like that was going to happen last night, but we got some timely goals in the third period.”
“It’s Hockey 101, but if you do the right things for long enough, you get rewarded,” said Dalpe.
With 31 games of NHL experience, Dalpe is among those most familiar with the setup in Raleigh. With continued good showings, in Sunday’s game and beyond, he and others hope to make their stay much longer than one game once given the opportunity.
“It’s familiar territory for a lot of us, and guys get to play in the rink they eventually want to play full time in,” he said.
Following Saturday’s practice, Daniels said that Dan Ellis will be the starting goalie on Sunday. Forwards Nicolas Blanchard and Justin Soryal and defensemen Marc-Andre Gragnani and Rasmus Rissanen will all miss the game due to injury.