As small as the Checkers’ lineup was at the end of Sunday’s game, it didn’t get any bigger at Tuesday’s practice.
One day before continuing a five-game home stand against Norfolk, the team was still short two forwards and one defenseman at the skate – easily the lowest turnout of the season. All four players that suffered injuries over the weekend (forwards Sean Dolan and Luke Pither and defensemen Marc-Andre Gragnani and Michal Jordan) did not participate.
For those left standing, the smaller group made for a lot of skating. Not that there were any complaints afterwards.
“We had fun,” said forward Nicolas Blanchard of the noticeably up-tempo session. “We can’t be feeling sorry for ourselves.”
Blanchard, a six-year AHL veteran and one of the team’s alternate captains, said he had to go back to his pee-wee days to recall the last time he had a full team practice with a group that small. Center Jeremy Welsh said it reminded him of exam time at Union College when only a handful of players took the ice at any given time.
Moments of levity aside, the unusual skate should be the last of its kind for the immediate future. Coach Jeff Daniels said that, one way or another, he would have 20 players at his disposal to face Norfolk and planned to spend the afternoon looking for three more from the ECHL.
“It’s just asking around and making calls,” he said of finding available players. “A lot of those teams have already been picked from so it’s hard with not a lot of players available.”
The Checkers already have 11 players on their roster that began the season in the ECHL, with nine players expected to miss Wednesday’s game and a handful of others with Carolina in the NHL. Daniels said that there was no timetable on those injured over the weekend, though they were questionable to return for this weekend’s games against Texas.
Of the injured nine, only Jerome Samson and Justin Shugg took the ice Tuesday, and even that was brief. Shugg only tested out his lower-body concern for around five minutes, while Samson continues to skate mostly on his own at a slower pace. After the skate, Daniels reiterated that Samson is “not even close.”
As such, the Checkers will have to continue to make do with what they have while continuing to welcome new players into the fold.
“We do our best not to welcome them and not make them feel shy,” said Blanchard of having to throw three new players into the fire against Norfolk. “We try to make them all feel like part of the family, because that’s how you win. You get chemistry.”
For players like Blanchard, one of only eight players from October’s opening night roster that will be available Wednesday, it’s not as easy as doing what they’ve always done with new players around them. He, along with Justin Soryal, Jared Staal, Brett Sutter, Jeremy Welsh, Brett Bellemore, Justin Krueger and Rasmus Rissanen, is now getting accustomed to new goals and new expectations.
“My role is to be tenacious and play hard, but now I’m getting more ice time,” he said. “I’m trying to hold on to the puck more and make plays, because we’ve lost a lot of guys that can score. We all have to have that mentality that we can score too.”
“The guys that we’ve had are all playing more at five-on-five and some are now on the power play and penalty kill that weren’t before,” said Daniels. “Guys are learning to expand their role, but that’s what they’ve been waiting for.”
After losing Dolan, Jordan and Pither in the first period of Sunday’s game, the effort from the shorthanded Checkers was about all anyone could ask for. They even battled back from a two-goal deficit to tie the game in the second period – a development that Blanchard said spoke to the character of the team - before fatigue set in during the third.
Regardless of who shows up Wednesday, that will have to continue to be the case with the team at a crossroads of either overtaking Texas for the division lead or falling back into the pack of teams hovering around the cutoff point in the Western Conference playoff race with 16 games left to play.
“Everyone has to step their game up and be a leader in the room,” said Blanchard. “We’ve got to find a way to get two points. Our goal has been to catch Texas, and we can do that even though we have some injuries.”