The Checkers hit the road once again for a four-game swing beginning tonight in San Antonio.
The game against the Rampage, the first meeting of the two South Division opponents this season, is the first of three games in three nights for the Checkers. Following tonight’s game, they’ll travel to Austin to face the Texas Stars on Saturday before returning to San Antonio to play a second game against the Rampage.
The Checkers faced San Antonio four times last season, with each team winning two games.
The Checkers, who have been off since Friday's 4-2 win over Peoria, are coming off their longest break of the season so far. They held just three practices during the six days between games, using two as complete off days away from the rink and a third for a monthly power skating session.
Part of that strategy was simply to rest – going into the break, they had played more games than any other AHL team – and part was to break up the monotony that would otherwise come with day after day spent going through the motions at practice.
"We wanted to use the time wisely and take a chance to get a few days off," said Daniels. "Even though we had all those games packed in, all of these guys want to play. Practice gets long and boring after a while, and we'll talk about how we've got to find that rhythm."
That rhythm has the Checkers as one of the AHL's top teams, having only recently been overtaken by Abbotsford for the league's top spot on Wednesday. After winning six of nine games on the road to start the season, they took three of four upon their return home and boast many of the league's top individual performers at every position.
The Checkers will have a few players missing from recent weeks, as defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani, who is tied for the league lead with seven power-play assists, is not expected to play at all this weekend. Additionally, center Victor Rask, a top Carolina Hurricanes prospect who scored five points (1g, 4a) in his first 10 games as a pro this season, returned to his junior team in Calgary on Tuesday.
The team still has a full complement of six defensemen, though Daniels said the team may bring in another player as insurance. At forward, Rask's departure makes one less player in a rotation that has included Sean Dolan, Justin Soryal and former San Antonio player A.J. Jenks.
Should the team stick to its even rotation in goal, Justin Peters would get the start in both games against the Rampage, including tonight's, with Dan Ellis playing against Texas on Saturday and against Norfolk on Wednesday.
As the road team, the Checkers are in the rare position of having beaten their opponent to its own city. The Rampage were in Austin on Thursday, during which time they suffered a 3-0 loss at the hands of the Stars. Of course, that advantage will be reversed for Sunday's game, when Charlotte will be the one making the 90-minute bus ride from Austin to face the idle Rampage.
Tonight's game will be just the third time the Checkers have played games against teams in their own division and first since visiting Houston and Texas during the season's opening weekend.
"Not right now, but I'm sure it will when we play them all eight times later in the year," said Daniels when asked if it even felt like his team had changed divisions this season. "The playoff format is that the top eight teams in the conference get in, so you've got to make sure you beat those teams as well."
Thursday's loss was the third in a row for the Rampage, who have just two wins in their last eight games. They're now tied with Peoria, a team the Checkers have beaten four times this season, for the fewest points in the Western Conference.
As shown on Thursday, offense has been a sore spot for San Antonio, which ranks tied for 24th in the AHL with an average of 2.25 goals per game. A young team with seven rookies on its roster (the Checkers have just one in 24-year-old Jeremy Welsh), the Rampage are led by Drew Shore, a second-round pick by the parent Florida Panthers in 2009 who has nine points (2g, 7a) in 12 games. Alex Petrovic, a 2010 second-rounder, is tied for the scoring lead among defensemen (2g, 4a), while 2010 first-round pick Quinton Howden (1g, 3a) has yet to hit his offensive stride.
Despite being in goal Thursday, top prospect Jacob Markstrom may again get the start against the Checkers tonight. In what has been a mostly even rotation to this point, Markstrom's 3.53 goals-aginst average and .884 save percentage are well below those of partner Dov Grumet-Morris, a veteran with a 2.15 goals-against average and .929 save percentage.
In Drayson Bowman (t-1st, 10 goals), Zach Boychuk (3rd, nine goals) and Chris Terry (t-6th, seven goals), the Checkers boast three of the AHL's top 15 goal scorers. Together, those three have accounted for just over half (52 percent) of the team's 50 goals, which are second-most in the AHL behind Houston's 52.
In terms of goals per game, the Checkers are first in the AHL with an average of 3.85. They also own two of the best period-by-period marks in the league, as only two other teams (Rochester and Houston) have scored 21 goals in any single period, something the Checkers have done twice (21 in each of the second and third periods).
Together with their 5th-ranked defense (an average of 2.46 goals allowed per game), the Checkers own the league's third-best goal differential at +18, trailing only Abbotsford's and Springfield's +22.
Defenseman Justin Faulk, who made the NHL's All-Rookie Team at 19 years of age last season, currently ranks tied for third in the AHL with 11 assists. Together with his three goals, that has him tied with four other players, including teammate Zach Boychuk, for sixth in overall league scoring with 14 points. Faulk, who has missed two games this season due to injury and rest, has played fewer games than any player tied or ahead of him in the AHL scoring chart.
Sharing the Wealth
The Checkers are one of three AHL teams (Lake Erie, Rochester) that have six different players that have hit double digits in points (Zach Boychuk, Justin Faulk, Drayson Bowman, Chris Terry, Brett Sutter, Zac Dalpe). By comparison, there are eight teams in the league that have yet to have one player score 10 points. With the exception of Justin Soryal, who has played just one game this season, every player who has suited up for the Checkers in 2012-13, including goalies Dan Ellis and Justin Peters, has recorded at least one point.
Boychuk in the Clutch
Zach Boychuk's overtime goal on Thursday was his fourth game-winning goal of the season, giving him sole possession of the AHL lead and putting him one shy of his own single-season team record set during the 2010-11 season. Boychuk, who tied for the team lead with three game-winning goals last season, is the Checkers' all-time leader in the category with a total of 12 in 137 games played.
Now second on the team and third in the league with nine goals, Boychuk, who is also tied for sixth in overall league scoring, has found the back of the net in eight of the team's 13 games with only three pointless outings.
In Chris Terry (6g, 2a) and Brett Sutter (5g, 3a), the Checkers have two players with active six-game point streaks. Those streaks are tied for the second-longest active streaks in the league, trailing only Houston's Mikael Granlund's seven-game run.
Terry is no stranger to long point streaks, having posted three streaks of five or more games last season, including two eight-game runs that marked career highs. Sutter's current streak is his longest in six regular seasons as a pro, eclipsing a four-game run in January of 2011, and ties the six-game streak he posted during the 2010 Calder Cup Playoffs as a member of the Abbotsford Heat.
Though their overall point streaks came to an end last week, Drayson Bowman and Justin Faulk will have the opportunity to extend their road-only streaks tonight. Bowman has goals in seven consecutive road games (8g, 1a), which is the longest in the league this season, while his seven-game point streak ties the longest current run in the AHL. Meanwhile, Faulk's four-game road assist streak (2g, 6a) is tied for the longest in the AHL this season.
Charlotte leads the AHL with a 29.5 percent success rate on the man advantage (18 goals on 61 chances). Though the team has had several contributors (11 different Checkers have scored at least one power-play goal, at least two more than any other AHL team), it also features some of the league's top individual performers on the man advantage. Drayson Bowman and Zach Boychuk are tied for second in goals (4), Marc-Andre Gragnani is tied for the lead in assists (7) and Boychuk is tied for second in total points (9).
The Checkers will play the third of seven sets of three games in three nights this weekend when they visit San Antonio and Texas. On their last three-in-three, the Checkers won all three games for the first time in franchise history (18 attempts) to improve to 5-1-0 in games that are part of a three-in-three set this season. All time, the Checkers are 30-20-4 in those games, including a 9-7-2 record in Game One, a 13-3-2 record in Game Two and an 8-10-0 record in Game Three.
- Drayson Bowman has goals and points in each of his last seven road games (Oct. 19-31; 8g, 1a)
- Chris Terry has points in each of his last six games (Oct. 21-Nov.9; 6g, 2a)
- Brett Sutter has points in each of his last six games (Oct. 28-Nov. 9; 5g, 3a)
- Justin Faulk has assists and points in each of his last four road games (Oct. 21-31; 2g, 6a)
- Justin Peters has wins in each of his last three games (Oct. 28-Nov. 7)
- Riley Nash has points in each of his last three games (Nov. 4-9; 1g, 3a)
- Zach Boychuk has goals and points in each of his last two games (Nov. 8-9; 3g, 1a)
- Jeremy Welsh has points in each of his last two games (Nov. 8-9; 1g, 1a)
- Zac Dalpe has assists and points in each of his last two games (Nov. 8-9; 1g, 2a)
- Jerome Samson is one point away from 100 as a Checker
- Marc-Andre Gragnani (lower-body, 11/8) – missed one game