As slowly as the Checkers’ marathon home stand began, they can certainly feel good with the way it ended.
Justin Peters made 23 saves to record his second shutout of the season and ninth of his AHL career as the Checkers concluded their 10-game stretch of games at Time Warner Cable Arena with a 3-0 win over the Houston Aeros on Saturday. Including a previous win over Houston, which had won seven of eight games coming in, Charlotte has now won three consecutive games after battling through a team-record, five-game losing streak earlier in the month.
The timing of their last two couldn’t have been any better, as the Aeros, who sat just one point behind the Checkers in the South Division two days ago, now trail by four.
“We’ve gotten back to playing the way we were when we were winning,” said Jeremy Welsh, whose team was 12-3-2 prior to hitting a wall just after Thanksgiving. “Sometimes when you win you forget the hard work you put in to get the wins, start thinking you're pretty skilled and that it's going to come easy."
“There’s always room for improvement, but we wanted to finish this little home stretch on a positive note,” said coach Jeff Daniels. "With each game we're getting a little better."
Welsh finished the game with two points, including a power-play goal in the second period, with Justin Shugg scoring his first AHL goal of the season in the first and Tim Wallace sealing the victory with an empty-net goal in the third. Those goals were more than enough to seal the victory in what had already been a tight defensive battle between the teams in the previous night’s 3-2 shootout victory.
Goals on Saturday were even harder to come by thanks in part to tired legs on both sides caused by Saturday’s noon start, part of a doubleheader with the Charlotte Bobcats at Time Warner Cable Arena.
“Both teams fought some fatigue,” said Daniels. “You leave the rink at 10:30 last night and you’re back less than 12 hours later.”
“It was tough, and something a lot of guys aren’t used to,” said Zach Boychuk, whose two assists gave him sole possession of the team scoring lead with 23 points. “It was really different to get up, eat breakfast and come straight to the rink to play.”
Any openings Houston found as a result were shut by the goaltending of Peters, who has formed a formidable tandem with veteran partner Dan Ellis this season. Over the team’s last three wins, the two have combined to limit opposing teams to just three total goals.
“It’s a great luxury to have when you’re playing a lot of games,” said Daniels, whose team is in the midst of playing three games in three nights, not to mention seven in the last 11 days. “They’re both very vocal and help our defense.”
“Even shooting on them in practice it’s hard to score goals, and that carries over into games,” said Boychuk. “They’re both very professional.”
Following a stretch in which he did not record a win in four appearances during the team’s losing streak, Peters now has wins in his last two starts, including Tuesday’s 3-1 win over Milwaukee. The four combined shutouts between he and Ellis match the team’s total from all of last season.
“I feel confident out there, and I’m the same as the rest of the team,” said Peters. “I need to focus on my game plan when things aren’t going the right way so I can help the team.”
Welsh’s outing was the second multi-point game of his professional career and first since he recorded two goals on Oct. 27. On his assist, he kept the puck alive in the offensive zone with a diving pass to Bobby Sanguinetti on the point, who fired a shot that was tipped by Shugg on its way in. Combined with his goal, the finish of a loose puck just 18 seconds into a Checkers power play, that continued a string of good performances for Welsh, a 24-year-old center who the Carolina Hurricanes signed out of Union College this past summer.
“He’s getting stronger every game,” said Daniels. “These last couple of games he has the puck more often, and his shot is starting to become a factor.”
“These last four or five games I’ve gotten my confidence going,” said Welsh. “At first there were a lot of things to learn with systems, but now I’m starting to think about scoring. I’m definitely turning the corner.”
Shugg’s goal, his first since March 25 of last season, came in his third AHL game of the season after the Checkers recalled him from the ECHL’s Florida Everblades just prior to the current winning streak. Shugg played 33 games with the Checkers last season and was expected to play a scoring role this season, but increased depth caused by the NHL’s lockout prevented that from happening.
“He showed last year what he’s capable of doing,” said Daniels of Shugg. “He got caught up in the numbers game this year, but he’s played well and he’s played smart away from the puck. He came up here with an opportunity to show that he belongs, and he’s doing that now.”
Immediately following Saturday’s game, the Checkers were off to the airport to catch a flight to San Antonio to complete their three-in-three set against the Rampage, who will play their second game in as many nights in Oklahoma City tonight.
Though legs may already be tired following Saturday’s unconventional start time, the Checkers don’t expect to be at a serious disadvantage.
“This is pretty close to the worst (scheduling) we’ve had, and it’s something we’ve never done before,” said Boychuk. “It will be nice to get in early tonight and get some rest.”
“There’s no excuses,” said Welsh. “With them getting in late tonight, it should be a pretty even playing field.”
The Checkers’ three-game winning streak matches their longest of the season, set two previous times … Charlotte is now a perfect 3-0-0 to start the eight-game season series with the Aeros … Peters’ previous shutout this season was a 19-save effort on Oct. 28 against Peoria … Welsh’s goal ended the Checkers’ four-game, 0-for-12 skid on the power play, their longest of the season … Shugg had 22 points (11g, 11a) in 19 games for ECHL Florida at the time of his recall on Monday … Boychuk extended his point streak to three games (0g, 4a) … Forwards Justin Soryal and Jared Staal were healthy scratches for Charlotte, while defenseman Rasmus Rissanen missed the game with an upper-body injury ... Fans voted Peters as the Roll up Your Sleeves Hardest Worker of the Game.