Tonight’s match-up is the first of back-to-back games against Lake Erie, which is making its only visit to Charlotte this season. A Checkers win would be the first of their current 10-game stretch of games at Time Warner Cable Arena, as they dropped their first four against Oklahoma City and Rockford to extend their only losing streak of the season.
Charlotte and Lake Erie play a total of four times this season, with the Checkers visiting Cleveland on Jan. 3 and 4 to complete the series. Last season, the Monsters won three of four meetings, one of which was decided in overtime and another in the shootout.
Despite the current four-game losing streak that ties team records for the longest overall losing streak and the longest at home, spirits remained high as the Checkers got back to work at practice this week.
“We’re not moping around,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “Guys know they have to work hard to bounce back, and that’s the character we have in this group.”
The slide at home has dropped the team’s record to 3-5-0 at home this season, as opposed to 9-2-2 on the road. That being said, the drop off in play could have more to do with the timing of the team’s first run-in with adversity than location.
“(Confidence) was pretty high when we were in first place, but there’s a fine line between being a top team that earns it every night and a team that gets complacent,” said goalie Dan Ellis. “You’ve got to keep improving, because if you don’t those other teams will catch you.”
Though they consider two of their four recent losses to be the result of poor efforts, the Checkers feel they can build off of what they did during a 4-1 loss to Rockford on Sunday.
“We did some good things in our last game,” said center Riley Nash. “It’s a step in the right direction.”
All eyes are currently fixed on the status of star defenseman Justin Faulk, who left Sunday’s game after being hit in the face with a puck and did not return. Faulk returned to practice on Wednesday wearing a full cage shield, though a final determination on whether or not he can play against Lake Erie will not be made until later in the day. Update: Faulk will play tonight. Additionally, Rasmus Rissanen has returned home due to a personal matter and will miss the next three games.
With Ellis getting the start on Sunday, Justin Peters should take his turn in the team’s regular rotation today.
One of the league’s top teams to start the season thanks in part to winning each of their first four shootouts en route to a 9-4-0 record, the Monsters have struggled of late, dropping seven of their last nine. They most recently won the first game of a three-in-three at home against San Antonio, before dropping the next night’s rematch and the third night’s trip to Toronto.
That being said, most of their games have been close, as they rank tied for third in the league with six games played in overtime, where they have a record of 4-2.
“(Lake Erie) is a team we haven’t seen yet with a new coach and some new players, but they play a lot of close games,” said Daniels, noting the presence of Dean Chynoweth, who spent the three previous seasons as an assistant with the New York Islanders, behind the bench. “Still, it’s got to be about us and what we do to bounce back.”
Mike Sgarbossa, an undrafted yet prolific scorer at the junior level (102 points in 66 games for OHL Sudbury last season), leads the Colorado Avalanche affiliate in scoring with 19 points in 22 games and ranks second among all AHL rookies in scoring. Behind him is 2009 third-round pick Tyson Barrie, who is tied with Faulk for fourth in the AHL in terms of scoring by defensemen (17 points).
Center Mark Olver, who ranks third on the team in scoring, has been the team’s most productive player of late, scoring six points (2g, 4a) during an active four-game point streak.
In goal, rookies Sami Aittokallio and Calvin Pickard have split the games evenly, with each posting a record at or near the .500 mark. Pickard started the team’s last game in Toronto, giving up five goals on 23 shots, making it perhaps likely that his Finnish partner, who has the better statistics of the two (2.79 goals-against average, .910 save percentage), could go tonight.
Trouble at Home
Dating back to last season, the Checkers are 3-9-0 in their last 12 games at Time Warner Cable Arena. During that stretch, they have been out-scored 40-13 in their nine losses, including an 8-2 loss to Abbotsford on April 8 and a 7-2 defeat to Oklahoma City on Nov. 25 that marked the team's most lopsided losses in each season. Prior to an 0-4-0 start to their current 10-game home stand, the Checkers had points in six consecutive games (5-0-1) and had not lost a game by more than one goal this season, something they've done in each of their last four games.
The Checkers' current home stand marks the longest in the team's three-year history, eclipsing a seven-game run in November of 2010. They are 9-2-2 on the road this season, as their 13 games played on the road are tied for second most in the league.
The Checkers' current four-game slide ties three previous streaks for the longest in the team's three-year AHL history. The streak, which began with the first back-to-back losses the Checkers had suffered all season, is the longest active losing streak in the league. With all four losses coming at home, the streak also ties an 0-4-0 run from April 3-8 for the team's longest-ever home losing streak.
Although his streaks of goals in three consecutive games, goals in five consecutive home games and points in five consecutive games were snapped on Sunday, Checkers forward Zach Boychuk ranks second in the AHL with 13 goals, trailing Syracuse's Tyler Johnson by two. Boychuk is also tied for the league lead in power-play goals (six), is tied for fifth in power-play points (11) and has sole possession of the league lead in game-winning goals (four).
Boychuk's goal-scoring streak at home tied the longest in the league this season, with Grand Rapids' Francis Pare having scored in five straight games between Oct. 13 and Nov. 9. After just 20 games played, Boychuk is already closing in on his AHL career high of 22 goals set in the 2010-11 season. In Boychuk and Drayson Bowman (11 goals, t-6th AHL), the Checkers have two players on pace to break Chris Terry's team record of 34 goals set during the 2010-11 season.
In his first game since suffering a lower-body injury on Nov. 8, defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani recorded an asisst on Zach Boychuk's power play goal against Rockford on Saturday. Despite missing a total of eight games due to an illness and a lower-body injury, the 2011 AHL defenseman of the year is tied for fourth in the league with eight power-play assists, just one off the league lead. With Gragnani in their lineup, the Checkers have scored on 27.9 percent of their opportunities. Without him, they've scored on 16.1 percent of their chances. Gragnani now has 10 points, all assists, in 13 games played this season.
The Checkers average 13.3 penalty minutes per game, which is the third-lowest total in the AHL. Prior to Nicolas Blanchard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Saturday, the Checkers were one of three teams (Grand Rapids, Springfield) that had yet to commit a 10-minute or game misconduct. Only three teams have fewer major penalties than the Checkers' 12.