The Checkers begin a set of three games in three nights tonight when they make their first visit to Oklahoma City this season.
The game is the first of two in a row against the Barons, top affiliate of the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers who are beginning life without their top talent now that the work stoppage affecting their parent club has ended. Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Justin Schultz are already in Edmonton, while the Checkers are expected to still have the bulk of their roster at their disposal.
The Barons took both previous meetings in Charlotte this season, the second by an 7-2 score on Nov. 25 that still marks the team’s most lopsided loss of the season. They will clash four more times after this weekend, including another back-to-back set in Oklahoma City to end the month.
The Checkers are likely to experience a significant roster shakeup when NHL training camps begin in a matter of days, but it looks as though they won’t have to worry about that tonight.
With the exception of defenseman Justin Faulk, who headed up to Raleigh earlier in the week, players who were Checkers before the NHL and NHLPA agreed to terms last week are still Checkers today. The team will still be without a few injured players and suspended captain Brett Sutter, but the likes of Zach Boychuk, Zac Dalpe, Drayson Bowman and Bobby Sanguinetti have all made the trip out west.
That would seemingly put the team in a good position to continue a successful stretch that has seen it earn points in 10 of its last 12 games, including wins in its last two.
“Even when we were losing (a four-game winless streak from Dec. 28-Jan. 3) I thought we were playing pretty well,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “We were generating a lot of chances and weren’t giving up a whole lot, and we were playing the right way.”
They’ll have to continue that momentum despite a number of players that will be unavailable for various reasons. In addition to Sutter missing tonight’s game, forward Nicolas Blanchard and defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani will miss all three games this weekend due to injury. Earlier in the week, Daniels said that forward Justin Soryal and Rasmus Rissanen were “a longshot” to return this weekend, but both have made the trip.
That means that the Checkers could have as many as five players that have played in the ECHL this season in tonight’s lineup, including forward A.J. Jenks, who the Checkers recalled on Thursday, forward Justin Shugg and defensemen Tommi Kivisto and Bobby Raymond. Additionally, the team recalled forward David Rutherford, who has 32 points (14g, 18a) in 31 games with the ECHL's Florida Everblades but has yet to make his AHL debut, on Friday morning.
As soon as the lockout ended last Sunday, the AHL careers of a handful of Barons ended with it.
Eberle (51 points in 34 games) and Schultz (48 points), the league’s top two scorers, did not play in the team’s 6-3 loss to Chicago later that day as they prepared to make the trip up to Edmonton. Ditto Hall, who ranked tied for eighth in league scoring (34 points in 26 games) despite making a late start to the season.
The last member of the Barons’ big four, 2011 first overall draft pick Nugent-Hopkins, had not been with the team since becoming concerned over a potential injury and joining Team Canada for the recent World Junior Championship. He will also not return.
As a result, the Barons, the team that undoubtedly benefited most from the NHL’s lockout, are now logically the team hit hardest by its end. Four of its top six scorers are gone, though they’ll be able to fall back on a handful of AHL veterans that allowed them to capture the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed last season.
“Everyone knew it would end eventually,” veteran Yann Danis, the AHL’s goaltender of the year last season told the Oklahoman on Sunday
. “It’s a big loss losing those guys but we have some depth. We managed to do well last year. One reason for our success was it didn’t matter who was in the lineup.”
Other returnees from last season are Mark Arcobello, Teemu Hartikainen and Magnus Paajarvi, who suddenly become the team’s top three scorers and could join their teammates at Edmonton’s camp at any time, as could rugged defenseman Colten Teubert and a handful of other high draft picks. Philippe Cornet, a 24-goal scorer at the AHL last season who lost his job due to the addition of NHL talent, should now be back full-time after spending the majority of this season in the ECHL.
Reaching for the Top
With the NHL lockout coming to an end and training camps set to begin as soon as this weekend, a number of Checkers players will be looking to make a return to the major leagues with Carolina. Of the 25 players currently on the team's roster, 12 have at least one game of NHL experience. All but three of those players (Dan Ellis, Marc-Andre Gragnani and Tim Wallace) have played for the Hurricanes.
Dalpe's Quiet Contributions
Zac Dalpe, who ranks third on the Checkers in scoring with 23 points (11g, 22a), is also among the team's leaders in a handful of less-heralded categories. His six penalty minutes are the fewest of any skater with more than 10 games played, while his +11 plus/minus rating and 116 shots on goal are both team highs.
The Checkers have scored shorthanded goals in back-to-back games for the first time this season, starting with Tim Wallace's goal in Lake Erie on Friday and continue with Zac Dalpe's against Norfolk on Sunday. The Checkers now have five shorthanded goals for the season (t-4th AHL), with no player registering more than one. Wallace (1g, 1a), who assisted on Dalpe's goal, and Riley Nash (2a) are the only Checkers with multiple shorthanded points.
Charlotte's penalty kill has also been successful in the more traditional sense, having kept opponents off the board 85.9 percent of the time to rank fifth in the AHL.
After failing to score more than two goals in five consecutive games, their longest such streak of the season, the Checkers have now accomplished that feat in back-to-back games, both regulation victories. Zac Dalpe scored three of the team's seven goals during that stretch, which included a 4-0 win in Lake Erie on Friday and a 3-1 over Norfolk on Sunday. For the season, the Checkers rank tied for 11th in the AHL with an average of 3.03 goals per game.
Slow Starts, Fast Finishes
The Checkers' 20 first-period goals are the fifth-fewest of any AHL team in their opening periods this season. The team has nearly doubled that total with 38 goals in the second period and has more than doubled it with a 48 goals in their third periods, the latter of which is the most any team has scored in any single period this season. In terms of goal differential, the Checkers are -7 in the first period, +4 in the second and +20 in the third period. The third-period differential is the best of any AHL team in any period.
Shutting the Door
Justin Peters' 23-save shutout against Lake Erie on Friday marked the 10th of his AHL career and third of the season. He is now just one away from tying his single season career high set with Albany during the 2008-09 campaign. Peters is one of nine AHL goaltenders with three or more shutouts this season.
Dating back to Dec. 11, Peters is 5-2-1 with a 1.48 goals-against average and .939 save percentage save percentage in his last eight games played.
This weekend, the Checkers will play three games in three nights for the fifth time this season as they play two games in Oklahoma City on Friday and Saturday before traveling to Houston to play a third on Sunday. In their last set at Houston, Texas and San Antonio from Dec. 28-30, the Checkers did not record a victory (0-2-1) for the first time in 21 attempts as an AHL franchise.
Thanks to sweeping two separate three-in-three sets for the first two times in their history earlier in the season, the Checkers are now 10-3-2 in games that are part of a three-in-three set this season, including a 4-0-1 mark in Game One, a 3-1-1 record in Game Two and a 3-2-0 showing in Game Three. Following this weekend, the Checkers will play two additional three-in-three sets later in the season.
In the Driver's Seat
The Checkers have began each day holding the top spot in the South Division since winning at Rockford on Oct. 20, a span of 81 days. They currently lead the second-place Texas Stars by two points and are only five 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.
The South Division is currently the AHL's only division that has four teams (Charlotte, Texas, Houston and Oklahoma City) with 40 or more points.
- Chris Terry has points in each of his last four games (Dec. 30-Jan. 6; 1g, 4a)
- Marc-Andre Gragnani has points in each of his last three games (Dec. 14-16; 1g, 2a)
- Zac Dalpe has goals and points in each of his last two games (Jan. 4-6; 2g, 1a)
- Tim Wallace has points in each of his last two games (Jan. 4-6; 1g, 2a)
- Jerome Samson has points in each of his last two games (Jan. 4-6; 1g, 1a)
- Justin Soryal (upper body, Jan. 4) - missed one game
- Nicolas Blanchard (upper body, Jan. 3) - missed two games
- Rasmus Rissanen (upper body, Dec. 28) - missed five games
- Marc-Andre Gragnani (lower body, Dec. 16) - missed eight games