Charlotte will be looking to build off one of its better efforts in recent weeks, a 3-1 win over Milwaukee on Tuesday. That lifted the team’s record to just 2-6-0 on its home stand, with a chance to make up some ground against a divisional opponent over the next two games. The teams have met just once this season, with the Checkers taking a 3-1 victory in their first game of the season at Houston on Oct. 13.
Following the two-game series against Houston, which includes Saturday’s noon game that is part of the second-ever doubleheader with the Charlotte Bobcats, the Checkers leave for San Antonio to complete the three-in-three set.
The Checkers’ good team effort in their last game came off a 5-2 loss to Milwaukee two days earlier that was arguably one of their worst, continuing a recent stretch of all-or-nothing consistency that has seen them alternate wins and losses in their last four outings.
As they look to win consecutive games for the first time since Nov. 18-21 tonight, the Checkers are hoping to do what they couldn’t following a seemingly big 5-1 victory over Lake Erie last Friday. Namely, retain some momentum.
“Guys need to remember that we can play like that,” forward Zac Dalpe said of Tuesday’s win. “Don’t be so tight.”
“We played hard and we were hard to play against,” said forward Tim Wallace. “I think that wears teams down.”
Checkers coach Jeff Daniels surprisingly made forward Jerome Samson, a two-time AHL All Star who had two goals in his previous three games, a healthy scratch on Tuesday. At Thursday’s practice, Samson was rotating with Jared Staal on the team’s fourth line, with Daniels offering no guarantees that Samson, a 20-goal scorer for each of his first five seasons at the AHL level, would be back in the lineup against Houston.
In goal, Dan Ellis, who recently extended his tryout contract with the Checkers, would seemingly get the nod tonight after Justin Peters started the team’s last game. However, Daniels bucked that trend as recently as last week, giving Ellis back-to-back starts for the first time all season.
Coinciding with recent struggles by the Checkers, Houston has rattled off a stretch of seven wins in its last eight games, including a convincing 5-1 win over San Antonio in its most recent game on Tuesday. That has them just one point behind Charlotte with two fewer games played, having briefly taken the top spot after Tuesday’s matinee only to have the Checkers reclaim the lead later that night.
Heading into tonight’s game, Daniels said that he expected to be in a tight battle with Houston all season long.
“They’re very talented,” he said. “You knew it was just a matter of time before their young players figured it out, and since then their record has really taken off.”
Houston’s recent surge has seen them overtake two other strong divisional teams, with the dynamic Oklahoma City Barons now fourth behind Charlotte, Houston and Texas.
“We’ve got a tough division, which you can tell just by looking at the records of every team,” said Daniels.
Finnish forward Mikael Granlund, a first-round pick who was tabbed for an NHL spot with the Minnesota Wild prior to the lockout, recently returned from a shoulder injury and will be available to play tonight. He has one assist in three games since his return, giving him 13 points (4g, 9a) in 11 games this season.
Forwards Jason Zucker, a second-round pick in 2010 who is tied for the AHL lead with six power-play goals, and Justin Fontaine are tied for the team lead in scoring with 20 points apiece. Both have ties to Checkers defenseman Justin Faulk, who played with Zucker in the U.S. National Team Development Program and with Fontaine at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Though they have not scored at the same pace, first-round picks Charlie Coyle and Zack Phillips round out the team’s potent offense, which has been supported by the addition of AHL veteran Brian Connelly on defense (15 points).
Matt Hackett, who performed admirably in a brief stint with the Wild last season, has played 19 of the team’s 23 games in goal, including each of the last 10. Defenseman Jonas Brodin, a first-round pick in 2011, is out with a broken clavicle.
Back on the Board
Three of the Checkers' top forwards broke their longest scoring droughts of the season during the 3-1 win over Milwaukee on Tuesday. Terry broke a seven-game point drought with an assist in Justin Faulk's goal, Zac Dalpe broke a five-game point drought on with his goal, and Boychuk broke a four-game drought by assisting on Tim Wallace's goal. In addition to being his longest drought of the season, Terry's drought was his longest as a professional (four seasons).
Trouble at Home
The Checkers are now 2-6-0 to start their 10-game home stand, the longest in their three AHL seasons. Prior to the current home stand, which ends against Houston on Saturday, 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 now done five times.
Dating back to last season, the Checkers are 5-11-0 in their last 16 games at Time Warner Cable Arena, having been out-scored 48-17 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.
The Checkers are now 5-7-0 at home this season and have a 9-2-2 record on the road.
Anything You Can Do...
Forwards Drayson Bowman and Zach Boychuk have exchanged ownership of the team's goal-scoring lead throughout the season. Bowman, who set a team record with goals in eight consecutive games earlier in the campaign, shot out to an early lead before Boychuk scored in five consecutive home games to surge ahead. Thanks to Bowman's goals in two of the team's last four games, the two are currently tied with 13 goals apiece, ranking tied for third in the AHL. Both players are on pace to shatter their AHL career highs of 22 goals (Boychuk) and 17 goals (Bowman) while breaking Chris Terry's team record of 34 goals from the 2010-11 season.
After scoring three times in his last five games, Checkers captain Brett Sutter ranks third on the team with nine goals. That has him on pace for 27, a mark that would easily top his career high of 13 set last season. All nine of Sutter's goals have come at even strength, making him the Checkers' leader and tying him for fourth in the league in even-strength goals.
Next to Nicolas Blanchard (367 games), Sutter, now in his sixth pro season, is the second-most-experienced AHL player on the Checkers' roster (360 games).
The Checkers have not scored a power play goal in their last three games (0-for-10), marking their longest drought of the season. During that time, they relinquished the title of having the league's most potent power play, dropping to fourth with a 21.7 percent success rate. Since scoring multiple power-play goals in five of their first eight games, the Checkers have not scored two in the same game since Oct. 28, a span of 17 games.
The Checkers still have three of the AHL's top individual performers on the power play in forwards Drayson Bowman and Zach Boychuk, who are tied for the league lead with six goals apiece, and defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani, who is tied for fourth with nine assists.
Rasmus Rissanen (upper body - 12/2) - missed four games.