The Checkers begin the second leg of their season-long road swing when they take on their former divisional rivals, the Milwaukee Admirals, tonight.
The game marks the first of eight meetings between the two clubs, who each called the Midwest Division home last season but went their separate ways over the summer, with Charlotte now calling the South home. The Checkers were 4-4 in head-to-head match-ups with the Admirals last season, but most notably lost in Milwaukee on the last day of the regular season in what was a do-or-die game for both teams in terms of their playoff chances. Charlotte would have made the postseason with just a single point in that game, but instead fell by a lopsided 6-1 score.
Tonight’s game is the first of three games in three nights for the Checkers, who next travel to Rockford to take on the IceHogs on Saturday and Sunday.
Despite losing a two-goal, third period lead en route to a ninth-round shootout loss in their most recent game at Texas last Sunday, the Checkers have been drawing on the positives from what was still a productive weekend.
“You never want to lose a lead, but getting three out of four points on the road is huge for us, especially so early in the season,” said defenseman Justin Faulk, who had three assists in Saturday’s 3-1 win in Houston.
Of concern for coach Jeff Daniels will be eliminating the penalties that proved problematic in the third periods of both games, with the penalty kill, off to an 11-for-12 start (91.7 percent) preventing things from being worse. As of now, those penalties are mostly being attributed to early-season rust.
“Most importantly it’s just getting some games under these guys, because most of them only got to play the one preseason game,” said Daniels.
The Checkers will again have four extra players with them on the trip, with veteran forwards A.J. Jenks and Justin Soryal yet to make their season debuts. Part of that is due to the continued presence of rookie center Victor Rask, a 19-year-old who has yet to return to his junior team in Calgary of the Western Hockey League.
“This weekend will be a big test for him,” said Daniels of Rask. “For a young player it’s a very big step, especially for an underage player.”
Daniels should again split the workload in goal between Justin Peters and Dan Ellis, though it’s not yet clear who will start which games this weekend.
One might expect these teams to know each other well after eight meetings last season, but turnover at the AHL level, especially during the NHL’s lockout, means that might not be the case.
The Admirals, who changed coaches once last season when the Carolina Hurricanes hired Kirk Muller, have a new bench boss once again in Dean Evason. With parent club Nashville’s management and coaching staff the same it’s had for the last several years, that may not mean a big difference in the team’s style of play, but Daniels isn’t taking that for granted.
“They have a lot of new personnel over there, but they’re always near the top of the league,” said Daniels. “I guess we’ll see this weekend.”
Milwaukee has played just one game thus far, a 3-2 win at Grand Rapids on Friday in which the Admirals erased a three-goal deficit. Chris Mueller, an AHL All-Star last season, got his team on the board with 43 seconds left in the second period before Patrick Cehlin, an AHL rookie who had been playing in Sweden prior to this season, scored twice in the first 10 minutes of the third. Goalie Jeremy Smith, who was 3-1-0 with a 1.63 goals-against average and .940 save percentage against the Checkers last season, made 19 saves to earn the victory.
In terms of NHL talent, the Admirals will have forward Gabriel Bourque, who led the Predators in playoff goals last season, and defensemen Jonathan Blum, who has played 67 games with Nashville in the last two years, at their disposal. Defenseman Ryan Ellis, a first-round pick in 2009 who also spent time with the Predators last season, is expected to miss the game due to an injured hand.
Checkers forward Zach Boychuk scored points in each of the team's first two games, including a one-goal, two-assist performance in Texas on Sunday, to become the team's early scoring leader. Boychuk, who led the team with 65 points in 2010-11 and with 21 goals in 2011-12, recorded his first three-point night since April 1, 2011, having scored two points on 13 different occasions last season. Boychuk enters the week in a four-way tie for second in AHL scoring behind Syracuse forward Cory Conacher, the league's reigning MVP. He leads the league in power-play assists (3) and is tied for the the league lead in power-play points (3).
After earning NHL All-Rookie honors last season, 20-year-old defenseman Justin Faulk made a successful return to the AHL, assisting on all three Checkers goals and taking a game-high seven shots on goal in Saturday's win over Houston. Through two games, Faulk ranks tied for second among AHL defensemen in points (3) and shots on goal (10).
Checkers forward Tim Wallace, who signed a two-way contract with Carolina in the offseason, scored the team's first goal of the preseason two weeks ago and its first goal of the regular season against Houston on Saturday. After adding an assist on Sunday, Wallace now has 22 points in his last 26 AHL contests, including points in each of his last four dating back to last season (1g, 3a).
Sunday's shootout loss in Texas dropped the Checkers to 1-5 in their last six shootouts dating back to last season. The team is now 11-14 in shootouts over the course of its three AHL seasons.
Starting with this weekend's trip through Milwaukee and Rockford, the Checkers will play three games in three nights seven times this season, down from the eight they played in each of their first two AHL campaigns. The Checkers are 25-19-4 all-time in games that are part of a three-in-three set, with a record of 7-7-2 in Game One, 11-3-2 in Game Two and 7-9-0 in Game Three.
The Checkers begin the 2012-13 campaign with a nine-game road swing that ties a team record set in October and November of last season. They finished that trip with a record of 5-4-0 en route to a 20-13-5 record for the entire season, and are 1-0-1 to start this season's swing.
Continuing with tonight's game in Milwaukee and Saturday's date in Rockford, each of the Checkers' first four games of the season will mark the opposing team's home opener. The Checkers' home opener on Nov. 4 is the latest of any AHL team, with the next-latest coming two weeks earlier on Oct. 20 when Hershey, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Worcester all play at home for the first time.
* includes games from last season
- Tim Wallace has points in each of his last four games (Dec. 3-Oct. 14; 1g, 3a)*
- Zach Boychuk has assists and points in each of his last two games (Oct. 13-14; 1g, 3a)
- Chris Terry has points in each of his last two games (Oct. 13-14; 1g, 1a)