Tonight’s meeting is the third of four March meetings between the two clubs, with each team earning one victory over the last two weeks. Thanks to three consecutive Charlotte victories to open the eight-game season series, the Checkers have a three-point lead in the standings for the GEICO Challenge Cup, meaning they would clinch the trophy with a regulation win tonight and at least a share of it with an overtime loss.
The Admirals return in two weeks to conclude the season series on March 26. Charlotte’s home stand comes to an end with games against the Texas Stars, part of the first-ever Old-Time Hockey Weekend, on Friday and Sunday.
The Checkers, who now have nine players on the injured list and a handful of others in the NHL with Carolina, will have three new faces in their lineup tonight.
ECHL All-Stars Casey Pierro-Zabotel, the league’s scoring leader, and C.J. Severyn will suit up at forward tonight after signing professional tryout contracts on Tuesday, giving the Checkers 12 healthy bodies to dress up front. Centers Sean Dolan and Luke Pither, injured in the first period of Charlotte’s most recent game, a 5-2 loss on Sunday, are out, as are Zac Dalpe, A.J. Jenks, Andreas Nodl, Jerome Samson and Justin Shugg.
Pierro-Zabotel, a 24-year-old center who has 74 points (21g, 53a) with the Gwinnett Gladiators this season, has played nine career AHL games, all with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton during his rookie season in 2009-10. Pittsburgh’s third-round pick in the 2007 draft has a history of high scoring, having led the WHL with 115 points in 72 games back in 2008-09.
Severyn, a 23-year-old left wing, has 42 points (21g, 21a) and 100 penalty minutes in 59 games with the Orlando Solar Bears. The Ohio State product, drafted by Calgary in the 2007 seventh round, would be making his AHL debut tonight.
The identity of the third new player, a defenseman, is not yet known. The Checkers have only five healthy blueliners at the moment, with Marc-Andre Gragnani and Michal Jordan suffering injuries over the weekend. Carolina signees Tommi Kivisto and Joe Sova are available in the ECHL, though the team could also turn to another tryout signing or a player from the college ranks.
Update: Danny Biega, the Hurricanes' third-round pick in 2010, has signed with the team and will play tonight. Read more here.
Though the month of March does feature 14 games, the schedule is spaced out enough (only two sets of back-to-back games) to allow the Checkers to continue relying on John Muse if they so choose. Since taking over for Justin Peters, who earned a 26-save shutout for Carolina on Tuesday, Muse is 2-2-0 with a 2.95 goals-against average and .896 save percentage.
Not that the Checkers will be particularly focused on it as they scramble to take care of their own problems, Norfolk will also have some changes coming into tonight’s meeting.
Reigning AHL Player of the Week Patrick Maroon, who scored against the Checkers one week ago, has been recalled to the Anaheim Ducks and will not play tonight. He joins scoring leader Peter Holland and a handful of other forwards with the big club, leaving Norfolk without five of its top seven scorers.
One player in that group, Dan Sexton, was actually traded to Tampa Bay in exchange for Kyle Wilson earlier in the week, with Wilson expected to make his Norfolk debut tonight. Wilson, a seventh-year pro, had just five points, all goals, in 22 games with Syracuse this season but has proven to be a productive player in several other AHL stops, scoring 310 points in 411 career games.
Defenseman Sami Vatanen, who has 36 points in 47 games, is the team’s active scoring leader. Forward Devante Smith-Pelly, who may be back in the lineup after a one-day stint with the Ducks, is next with 20 points in 47 outings.
In goal, former Carolina prospect Frederik Andersen has appeared in eight of Norfolk’s last nine games, going 6-1-0 in that time. He ranks third in AHL goals-against average (2.11) and save percentage (.931).
Starting with their overtime loss to Charlotte last Wednesday, the Admirals have earned points in three straight games, including convincing 5-1 and 4-1 home victories over Hershey over the weekend. They are now 6-2-2 in their last 10 games and find themselves five points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Of the 19 players on the Checkers' current roster healthy enough to play tonight's game, only eight began the season at the AHL level with the Checkers. The other 16 players from the team's opening night roster from Oct. 13 are either injured (six - Zac Dalpe, Sean Dolan, Marc-Andre Gragnani, A.J. Jenks, Michal Jordan, and Jerome Samson) in the NHL (nine - Drayson Bowman, Zach Boychuk, Dan Ellis, Justin Faulk, Riley Nash, Justin Peters, Bobby Sanguinetti, Chris Terry, Tim Wallace) or in junior hockey (Victor Rask).
Of the Checker's 183 goals scored this season, only 44 of those (24 percent) were scored by players available for tonight's game. The Checkers currently have only two of their top 15 scorers at their disposal: Brett Sutter (fourth with 33 points) and Jeremy Welsh (t-9th with 21). Defenseman Brett Bellemore is next with 10 points.
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, with another, Zach Boychuk, currently playing for Nashville after spending time with the Hurricanes in January.
Terry, who is tied for the AHL lead with seven game-winning goals, had the winner in the Hurricanes' 6-3 victory over New Jersey.
Keeping the Pace
The Checkers have 75 points through 60 games this season, putting them three points ahead of last season's total at the same point in their schedule. They currently have an 11-point lead over ninth-place Oklahoma City in the Western Conference playoff race.
The 2011-12 Checkers would go on to win just six of their last 16 games (6-9-1) to miss the playoffs by a single point.
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, which ties them with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for most in the AHL. They are 8-5 in total overtime games, 5-2 in the regular overtime period and 3-3 in shootouts this season.
Along with Springfield, the Checkers are one of only two AHL teams to rank in the top 10 in goals per game (8th - 3.05), goals allowed per game (t-6th- 2.58), power play (5th - 21.0%) and penalty killing (2nd - 86.7%).
Eight of the Checkers' next 12 games, including six at home, will be played against South Division opponents - a run will conclude the team's slate of divisional games this season. The Checkers are 13-8-3 against the South Division this season and currently trail first-place Texas, who they play five times in the next five weeks, by just one point with one more game played.
The South is currently the only division in the AHL that has three teams with 68 or more points (Texas - 76; Charlotte - 76; Houston - 68).
Jerome Samson has points in each of his last two games (Jan. 4-6; 1g, 1a)
Sean Dolan (March 10) - out tonight
Luke Pither (March 10) - out tonight
Michal Jordan (March 10) - out tonight
Marc-Andre Gragnani (March 9) - missed one game
Justin Shugg (March 4) - missed three games
Zac Dalpe (March 1) - missed five games
Andreas Nodl (March 1) - missed five games, out for season
A.J. Jenks (Jan. 17) - missed 19 games
Jerome Samson (Jan. 6) - missed 24 games
March 12 - (LW) C.J. Severyn signed to professional tryout contract
March 12 - (C) Casey Pierro-Zabotel signed to professional tryout contract
March 10 - (D) Beau Schmitz recalled to Charlotte from Florida (ECHL)
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 8 - (LW) Chris Terry recalled to Carolina (NHL) from Charlotte