The Checkers look to win their third game in a row and reclaim the top spot in the South Division for the first time since Feb. 1 when they host the second of back-to-back games against the Houston Aeros this afternoon.
Charlotte will attempt to keep its head-to-head point streak against Houston alive, with the Checkers’ 2-1 shootout win on Saturday night improving them to 5-0-1 against the Aeros this season. Four of those seven games have gone to overtime, with the final match-up set for March 21 in Houston.
A win tonight would allow Charlotte to leapfrog the idle Texas Stars for first place in the division and the Western Conference, with the Stars set to visit Charlotte for the first time next weekend. The Checkers currently occupy the fourth seed in the West with a nine-point lead over the fifth-place Aeros.
With top scorer Chris Terry the latest player to leave the team due to injury or recall to the NHL, the Checkers continued to get big contributions from those brought in to take their place.
John Muse, who played the first half of this season with the ECHL’s Florida Everblades, made 32 save in regulation and overtime and stopped all four he faced in the shootout to earn the win over the Aeros on Saturday. The result improved him to 16-5-2 over parts of three AHL seasons and to 2-1-0 since taking over for All-Star Justin Peters as the team’s full-time starter.
“It’s nice to get a string of starts,” said Muse, who may get another today. “You get ready in practice and everything, but it's a little different in game action so it takes a couple of games when you're not playing very often."
“We saw it last year from him,” said Checkers coach Jeff Daniels of Muse, who went 10-3-2 with a 1.81 goals-against average and .941 percentage under similar circumstances in his rookie campaign. “It’s what we always say – he wins.”
Meanwhile, forward David Marshall, signed to a professional tryout contract on Wednesday to replace the injured Justin Shugg, scored the Checkers’ only goal in regulation and added another in the shootout on Saturday. He now has two points in two games (1g, 1a) since joining the team from the ECHL’s Reading Royals, where he had 50 points in 55 outings.
“I’m probably just riding that high from getting called up again,” said Marshall, a former ECHL Checker who was scoreless in six games with Binghamton earlier this season but has now found a home on Charlotte’s top line. “I’ve been put in some pretty good situations with some pretty good players.”
The Checkers will have an eye on the health of defenseman Michal Jordan, who suffered an injury in overtime on Saturday and was slow to leave the ice. If he is unable to play, the team would need to bring in another player who started the season in the ECHL – the 11th on their roster. Update: The Checkers have recalled defenseman Beau Schmitz from ECHL Florida.
Having faced Houston six times prior to Saturday’s match-up, the Checkers knew more or less what to expect even though the end of the NHL’s lockout had caused some personnel changes similar to those seen in Charlotte.
“We knew that coming in it was going to be a hard-fought, low-scoring, tight-checking game,” said Daniels. “When you play Houston, you’ve just got to stick with it.”
“They play a really tough game and don’t give up many opportunities,” said Muse. “They wait for you to make a mistake.”
That said, the Checkers may be in for a surprise in goal, with regular-season starters Darcy Kuemper and Matt Hackett with the Minnesota Wild in the NHL and Saturday starter John Curry suffering an injury during the shootout in his first AHL appearance of the season.
Curry’s injury resulted in a bizarre ending to the game, with rookie Cody Reichard coming in to face exactly one shooter in his first-ever AHL game. With Brett Sutter scoring on that opportunity, Reichard was responsible for the winning goal despite playing exactly zero minutes and facing exactly zero shots during the game.
“That had to be tough,” said Muse. “I played against him in college and he’s a good kid, but I can’t imagine having to do that.”
Depending on the severity of the injury to Curry, a 29-year-old veteran who has played in the NHL with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Reichard could be in line to make his first career start today. Houston may also be in the market for another goaltender to bring in on an emergency basis.
The Checkers have won each of their last five overtime games, including Saturday's 2-1 shootout win over Houston. That was the only game in the current streak that went to the shootout, with Charlotte winning the previous four during the initial five-minute period.
The Checkers have won a total of five games during the five-minute, four-on-four overtime period this season, more than any other AHL team. They are 8-5 in total overtime games, 5-2 in the regular overtime period and 3-3 in shootouts this season.
Of the Checker's 180 goals scored this season, only 60 of those (33.3 percent) were scored by players available for tonight's game. Brett Sutter is the team's active leader with 13, Jeremy Welsh is next with 11 and no other player has scored more than six (Michal Jordan and Luke Pither). The Checkers are currently missing nine of their top 11 scorers to due injury or recall to the NHL, with Sutter (33 points), Marc-Andre Gragnani (27) and Welsh (21) making up the remaining three.
With Chris Terry making his NHL debut on Saturday after earning his first-ever recall the day before, he became the 15th player to play for both the Checkers and Hurricanes since the NHL season began in January. Carolina currently has eight players on its roster who started the season with Charlotte.
Terry, who leads the AHL with seven game-winning goals, had the winner in the Hurricanes' 6-3 victory over New Jersey.
PK is OK
The Checkers killed all four Houston power plays on Sunday, iimproving their penalty killing total to 35-for-36 (97.2 percent) over their last nine outings. For the season, the Checkers have the AHL's second-best penalty kill at 87.0 percent.
Including today's game against Houston, nine of the Checkers' next 13 games will be played against South Division opponents - a run will conclude the team's slate of divisional games this season. Seven of those games will take place in Charlotte. The Checkers are 13-7-3 against the South Division this season and currently trail first-place Texas by just one point with even games played.
David Rutherford has points in each of his last four games (March 3-9; 1g, 3a) and assists in each of his last three (March 4-9; 0g, 3a)
David Marshall has points in each of his last two games (March 6-9; 1g, 1a)
Jerome Samson has points in each of his last two games (Jan. 4-6; 1g, 1a)
Justin Shugg (lower body, March 4) - missed two games
Zac Dalpe (lower body, March 1) - missed four games
Andreas Nodl (lower body, March 1) - missed four games, out for season
A.J. Jenks (upper body, Jan. 17) - missed 18 games
Jerome Samson (upper body, Jan. 6) - missed 23 games
March 8 - (C) Jeremy Welsh reassigned to Charlotte from Carolina (NHL)
March 8 - (C) Brett Sutter reassigned to Charlotte from Carolina (NHL)
March 6 - (RW) David Marshall signed to professional tryout contract
March 4 - (G) Rob Madore recalled to Charlotte from Florida (ECHL)
March 8 - (LW) Chris Terry recalled to Carolina (NHL) from Charlotte
March 4 - (G) Justin Peters recalled to Carolina (NHL) from Charlotte