As well as the Checkers have played of late, they haven’t been able to create the kind of divisional breathing room that they might have expected.
Despite winning seven of its last eight games, Charlotte is tied for first with Texas in the South Division. In fact, the Stars have actually made up ground in the last month, having won nine of their last 10 as opposed to the Checkers’ seven victories in that same amount of time.
With that kind of recent success, it’s no surprise that Charlotte and Texas, which have identical 25-12-5 records, are currently the top two teams in the AHL in terms of total points. The Stars have also proven to be the toughest team the Checkers have faced this season, having taken the maximum six points in head-to-head meetings this season, including two shootout wins. Of 11 total opponents they’ve met, Texas is the only one the Checkers have yet to defeat.
The emerging rivals, one of which has been atop the divisional standings since late October (Charlotte) and the other that has only recently separated itself from Houston and Oklahoma City (Texas), won’t meet again until the Stars make their first trip to Charlotte on March 15.
The good news for both teams is that they don’t have to look too far over their shoulder in the larger Western Conference picture, as ninth place Oklahoma City currently trails by 12 points.
Some additional notes from another successful stretch for the Checkers:
Gragnani Back in Action
Having missed a total of 20 games this season due to a nagging lower-body injury, defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani finally got tired of waiting.
“I wouldn’t say I’m completely over it, but if I wait until I’m 100 percent I won’t come back until 2014,” he said.
The 25-year-old made his return to the lineup Sunday, earning an assist in the Checkers’ 6-1 win over Norfolk. It extended his point streak to four games – four games that took a month to complete as he hadn’t played since scoring the game-winning goal on the power play in a Dec. 16 win over San Antonio.
Some early rust aside, the AHL’s defenseman of the year in 2010-11 looked like his old self for much of the game.
“I felt really good,” he said. “Obviously there were a few plays where you’d like to be better, but that’s going to take a couple of games.”
“He’ll continue to get better in the next few games, but there were a lot of things I liked in his first game back,” said coach Jeff Daniels.
With Gragnani on the ice for each goal, the Checkers went 3-for-5 on the power play against Norfolk, marking the second time they’ve scored at least three man-advantage goals in a single game this season. The first was at Grand Rapids on Oct. 26, when Gragnani became the first AHL player in two years to record four power-play assists in a single game.
“His asset is his ability to be an offensive guy,” said Daniels. “He’s one of the best passers we’ve seen around here, and he immediately makes your power play better.”
When Gragnani is in the lineup, the Checkers’ power play is a full 10 percentage points better (25.3 percent) than when he isn’t (15.2 percent). That kind of impact is part of why he would have had a good chance of being with Carolina instead of Charlotte had he been healthy for last week’s training camp.
“He’s a guy that spent all of last year in the NHL and will want to be back,” said Daniels.
“All I can do is work hard and keep putting in the effort,” said Gragnani.
Pither Fits Right In
New acquisition Luke Pither was hoping to generate more offense than in his last AHL stint, but could he have predicted this?
“No, but I’m going to roll with it,” he said. “It’s good to get that monkey off my back so early.”
Including a career-high three (2g, 1a) in the win over Norfolk, Pither now has five points (3g, 2a) in his first three games as a Checker following his acquisition via a Hurricanes trade with Philadelphia on Jan. 12. By comparison, he had 30 in his first 106 games with Adirondack over the last two seasons.
Though he had yet to replicate it in the pro ranks prior to this season, Pither was a prolific scorer in junior hockey, particularly during his fifth season with Barrie in 2009-10. As a 20-year-old, he had 94 points (36g, 58a) in 67 games that season, trailing only Tyler Seguin and Taylor Hall, the top two choices in that summer’s NHL draft, for the league lead.
Now 23, Pither attributes his breakout to a few different factors, including a successful stint with ECHL Wheeling to start the season.
“Being down there, I got a lot of minutes, got my confidence back and got back to being the player I was before I started pro hockey,” said Pither, who had 22 points (9g, 13a) in 24 games with the Nailers at the time of the trade.
He’s also been seeing plenty of time on the power play – a rarity in his first AHL stint – where he seemed to develop good chemistry with the likes of Tim Wallace in their first game together on Sunday.
“I’m playing with good players and it’s easy to look good,” said Pither.
“He’s been able to score in the past, and we’ve also lost a number of power-play guys that we need to replace,” said Daniels. “He’s gotten that chance and taken advantage of it.”
Pither is admittedly still adjusting to the finer points of Daniels’ playing style at even strength, although he has managed to score two five-on-five goals using his speed and his shot alone.
“It’s a new system, new building and new players,” said Daniels. “If we see something that needs to be corrected we’ll show him, but right now we just want him to be himself.”
While contributions from players joining the lineup either for the first time or after long absences have been significant, it wouldn’t be possible to win seven of eight without standout performances of those who have been around from the start.
Riley Nash and Tim Wallace, secondary scorers for the first half of the season, have made a seamless transition to primary roles since five of the team’s top six scorers went to the NHL between Jan. 12-14. Nash has 10 points in his last eight games, making the most prolific stretch of his pro career, while Wallace has doubled his point total from his first 34 games in his last four alone.
Nash, who has tied a career high with three points, had two other multi-point games and scored an overtime winner in January, has already surpassed his scoring total from last season by five points in 21 fewer games played. Having spent much of his rookie season two years ago in a checking role, he’s now being used extensively in all situations.
“He’s been a solid player for us and has come a long way since he first turned pro, but now he’s getting a lot more responsibility for us both on the power play and the penalty kill,” said Daniels. “Now’s his time.”
Wallace, the team’s elder statesman at 28, has nine points in his last four outings, marking the most productive four-game stretch of any Checker this season. That includes a four-point game on Jan. 11 that marked a personal best and tied a franchise record set eight previous times, including once by Gragnani this season.
“He made us a better team from day one with the way he plays the game,” said Daniels of Wallace. “Even before he was scoring he was a factor and he played hard every night. Him getting rewarded like this is nice to see.”
Both players were disappointed not to stay with Carolina longer than they did, having each made the quick trip to Raleigh for training camp last week before eventually returning to Charlotte. Still, it hasn’t carried over to their game.
“All you can do is play well,” said Daniels. “You can’t afford to get in a rut, because at some point there’s going to be callups.”