The Checkers take a break from a home-heavy schedule with a two-game trip through the South Division starting in Houston tonight.
The last of eight head-to-head meetings between the two clubs has playoff implications, with the fourth-seeded Checkers looking to hold off the sixth-seeded Aeros in the Western Conference race. Charlotte holds a seven-point lead over Houston and a pack of seven teams separated by just four points and will be looking to further that distance.
The Checkers are 5-1-1 against Houston this season, with the teams most recently splitting back-to-back games in Charlotte on March 9 and 10. Four of the seven meetings have gone to overtime.
Having broken a three-game losing streak with an overtime triumph over league-leading Texas on Sunday – arguably their biggest win of the season – the Checkers will have some momentum as they hit the road.
However, they’ll have to keep it going after yet another important change to their roster. Due to an injury to former Checkers blueliner Justin Faulk in Carolina, Brett Bellemore joined the Hurricanes on Wednesday and is expected to make his NHL debut and become the 16th player to play for both Charlotte and Carolina this season. Bellemore leads Checkers defensemen with a plus-12 rating and is second on the team with 85 penalty minutes.
That leaves the AHL club with just five defensemen, only two of which (Justin Krueger and Rasmus Rissanen) were on board at the beginning of the season. Anyone brought in from the ECHL to replace Bellemore would be the 13th player in the Checkers’ projected lineup against Houston (and the fourth defenseman) that began the season in a lower league.
That high total is due to recalls and an injury list that now includes 11 players after Wednesday’s news that Justin Soryal will miss most, if not all, of the remaining season. None of the other injured players (forwards Zac Dalpe, Sean Dolan, A.J. Jenks, Andreas Nodl, Luke Pither, Jerome Samson and Justin Shugg and defensemen Danny Biega, Marc-Andre Gragnani and Michal Jordan) are expected to return this week.
The Checkers had already added Tommi Kivisto and Beau Schmitz from the Florida Everblades in recent weeks, leaving Joe Sova, currently with the Reading Royals, as the only player in the ECHL under contract with either Carolina or Charlotte. However, Charlotte could also look outside of the organization and bring a new player in on a professional tryout contract.
Update: The Checkers have signed defenseman Eric Baier to a professional tryout contract. Baier, most recently of the ECHL's Trenton Titans, has 24 games of AHL experience with four different teams. More info on Baier can be found here.
John Muse, who made 28 saves in the 3-2 win over Texas, will likely make his eighth consecutive start in goal tonight. Rob Madore would then back up, with Mike Murphy, who began practicing with the Checkers earlier this week, not yet ready to appear in game action.
The Aeros have won two of three games since their last meeting with Charlotte but are coming off a 4-2 loss to San Antonio in their most recent game on Friday. If not for the heroics of Rampage goalie Dov Grumet-Morris, that could have easily been a third straight win as the Aeros held a 39-26 shots advantage.
The parent Minnesota Wild did give the team a boost last week, with top rookie Mikael Granlund returning from the NHL. The former first-round pick, who produced more slowly than expected with Minnesota (six points in 19 games), has assists in back-to-back games since returning to the AHL to give him 23 points (8g, 15a) in 23 total games.
Goaltending, an issue when the teams last met (John Curry and Cody Reichard, who each faced Charlotte, were on professional tryout contracts), has also been shored up. Darcy Keumper is back from Minnesota and has gone 1-1-0 while stopping 55 of 59 total shots in Houston's last two games. In 18 games this season, the 22-year-old has a 1.81 goals-against average and .937 save percentage with the Aeros.
Active scoring leader Justin Fontaine (39 points in 49 games) has points in five of his last six games (3g, 2a), while second-place John Larsson has eight (2g, 6a) during that same time frame.
The Wild have made a pair of trades since the Aeros’ last meeting with the Checkers, sending forward Matt Kassian to Ottawa and defenseman Chay Genoway to Washington, both in exchange for draft picks.
The Checkers are 20-8-4 with 44 points earned away from Time Warner Cable Arena this season. That total ties them with Texas for the second-most in the AHL, with Syracuse (23-8-2) holding the top spot with 48 points. Charlotte's two road games this week are the only two they play between March 7 and April 12, with the other 12 contests during that span coming at home. Following a seven-game home stand that starts next week, the Checkers will play their final four games of the regular season on the road.
Terry's Clutch Goals
Checkers scoring leader Chris Terry recorded his league-leading third overtime goal and league-leading eighth game-winning goal of the season in a 3-2 win over Texas on Sunday. All eight of his game-winners this season were either scored in the third period or later or put the Checkers ahead in what had been a tie game.
Terry, who has already shattered the old franchise record for most game-winning goals in a single season (five), now ranks t-10th in the AHL with 23 goals, more than any Checkers skater scored last season, and is t-14th with 48 points. He has goals in each of his last three road games.
Dating back to Jan. 12, the Checkers have won each of their last six overtime games, including five during the five-minute, four-on-four period. Their six total wins during the five-minute period are the most of any AHL team. The Checkers are an overall 9-5 in games tied after regulation this season, including a 6-2 record during the regular overtime period and a 3-3 record in shootouts. Four of their seven meetings against Houston this season have gone to overtime.
With 13 games to play, the fourth-seeded Checkers currently have a 10-point lead over ninth-place Abbotsford in the Western Conference. They also enjoy a seven-point lead over Rochester and Houston (seeds five and six), which head a pack of seven teams separated by just four points. The Checkers are also six points behind Texas (who they face three more times) for the South Division lead and a guaranteed spot in the top three.
The Checkers have 77 points through 63 games this season, putting them five points ahead of last season's total at the same point in their schedule. The 2011-12 Checkers would go on to win just six of their last 13 games (6-6-1) to miss the playoffs by a single point (85).
Sutter Keeps Scoring
Having already posted career highs in goals (14), assists (24) and points (38) in his sixth professional season, Checkers captain Brett Sutter has recorded five points (1g, 4a) in his last three games. The veteran forward now has 15 points (3g, 12a) in his last 13 outings since Feb. 1 and is tied with the injured Zac Dalpe for second on the team in scoring.
His offensive output down the stretch mirrors that of previous seasons, including the 2011-12 campaign when he scored 12 (5g, 7a) of his 29 points in the season's final 20 games. Sutter's career point-per-game average in the playoffs (.862) is also significantly higher than in the regular season (.375).
Of the 19 healthy players on the Checkers' current roster, only seven began the season at the AHL level with the Checkers. The other 17 players from the team's opening night roster from Oct. 13 are either injured (seven - Zac Dalpe, Sean Dolan, Marc-Andre Gragnani, A.J. Jenks, Michal Jordan, Jerome Samson and Justin Soryal) in the NHL (nine - Brett Bellemore, Drayson Bowman, Zach Boychuk, Dan Ellis, Justin Faulk, Riley Nash, Justin Peters, Bobby Sanguinetti, Tim Wallace) or in junior hockey (Victor Rask).
Of the Checker's 191 goals scored this season, only 71 of those (37.1 percent) were scored by players expected to be available tonight, with Chris Terry accounting for 23 of those. The Checkers currently have only three of their top 16 scorers at their disposal: Terry (first with 48 points), Brett Sutter (t-2nd with 38) and Jeremy Welsh (t-9th with 21).
Should Brett Bellemore make his NHL debut with Carolina tonight, he would become the 16th player to have played 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.
PK is OK
The Checkers, who are tied for the AHL's second-best penalty-killing record at 86.8 percent, have allowed just two power-play goals in their last 13 games dating back to Feb. 16. During that time, they have killed 47 of 49 power plays (95.9 percent).
Charlotte, which has the league's best disciplinary record with an average of 12.4 penalty minutes per game, has been in shorthanded situations 240 times this season, which is fifth-fewest in the AHL.
Six of the Checkers' next nine games, including four 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 14-9-3 against the South Division this season and currently trail first-place Texas, who they play three times in the next four weeks, by six points.
- Brett Sutter has points in each of his last three games (March 13-17; 1g, 4a) and multiple assists in each of his last two (March 15-17; 0g, 4a)
- Jerome Samson has points in each of his last two games (Jan. 4-6; 1g, 1a)
- Danny Biega (March 13) - missed two games
- Sean Dolan (March 10) - missed three games
- Luke Pither (March 10) - missed three games
- Michal Jordan (March 10) - missed three games
- Marc-Andre Gragnani (March 9) - missed four games
- Justin Shugg (March 4) - missed six games
- Zac Dalpe (March 1) - missed eight games
- Andreas Nodl (March 1) - missed eight games, out for season
- A.J. Jenks (Jan. 17) - missed 22 games
- Jerome Samson (Jan. 6) - missed 27 games
- March 21 - (D) Eric Baier signed to professional tryout contract
- March 15 - (LW) Chris Terry reassigned to Charlotte from Carolina (NHL)
- March 15 - (D) Tommi Kivisto recalled to Charlotte from Florida (ECHL)
- March 20 - (D) Brett Bellemore recalled to Carolina (NHL) from Charlotte