The Checkers look to stay perfect against the Admirals as they conclude a home-and-home series with their regional rivals at Norfolk tonight.
Charlotte has won the first three games of the eight-game series between the two clubs, including a 6-1 win Sunday at Time Warner Cable Arena. That gives the Checkers a commanding lead in the standings for the GEICO Challenge Cup, which goes to the team with the most total points at the conclusion of the season's head-to-head meetings.
Overall, the Checkers are 7-1-0 in their last eight games dating back to Jan. 4, including two wins over Norfolk.
Anchored by veterans stepping up to fill the void left by seven players gone to the NHL and boosted by the fast adjustments of new players, the Checkers are again enjoying one of their best stretches of the season. Thanks to a hot start to January, they are currently tied with the division rival Texas Stars for the most total points in the AHL.
Sunday’s big win over the Admirals continued hot offensive stretches for a number of players, including veteran forwards Riley Nash (10 points in his last eight games) and Tim Wallace (nine in his last four) and All-Star defenseman Michal Jordan (four in his last three). Those three, all previously secondary scorers thrust into primary roles since the NHL’s lockout ended, are currently in the midst of the most productive stretches of not only the season but their entire professional careers.
Additionally, active scoring leader Chris Terry has 11 points in his last 10 outings, while starting netminder Justin Peters has continued his consistently stellar play over the last month, going 9-3-1 with a 1.53 goals-against average, .944 save percentage and four shutouts since Dec. 11. Defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani also made a successful return from a long injury on Sunday, helping the team to three power-play goals, while Andreas Nodl recorded his first two points as a Checker in his second game.
If those players are feeling disappointment about not starting the season with the Carolina Hurricanes, it hasn’t shown.
“All you can do is play well,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “You can’t afford to get in a rut, because at some point there’s going to be callups.”
As for new players, the team’s seven ECHL recalls have been solid in supporting roles, including defenseman Bobby Raymond, who earned an AHL contract with the team on Tuesday. Two have developed into reliable offensive threats, with Justin Shugg on a career-best, five game point streak (1g, 4a) and Luke Pither grabbing five points in his first three AHL games of the season (3g, 2a).
The Checkers may get forward Nicolas Blanchard back from injury for tonight’s game, as the alternate captain skated fully for the first time since leaving the Jan. 3 game on Tuesday and made the trip to Norfolk. If he plays, it would likely be in place of forward David Rutherford.
As flattering as Sunday’s score was to the Checkers, they realize that circumstances may not have made it an entirely fair fight. The Admirals were playing for the third time in three nights, including an overnight bus from Norfolk to Charlotte on Saturday, while the Checkers had been off since playing at home three days earlier.
The result was three first-period goals for Charlotte, which dominated the game from start to finish despite the Admirals maintaining their physical play up until the final buzzer and possibly setting a tone for tonight’s rematch.
“They’re a big, strong team that makes it hard to get to the front of the net,” said Daniels, whose team has out-scored Norfolk by a combined 14-4 margin in three meetings this season. “I think we caught them on the three-in-three, and they’ll be much better this time.”
In sharp contrast to the first-place Checkers, who have lost just one regulation game in January, the Admirals, who occupy the last spot in the Eastern Conference, have just one victory in 2013. That includes a seven-game winless streak that ran from Dec. 30 to Jan. 18.
Since the team’s last met, the Admirals have lost veteran defenseman Kent Huskins, who did not make the trip to Charlotte and has since signed an NHL contract with the Detroit Red Wings. They’ve also made a change in goal, with former Hurricanes prospect Frederik Andersen back in the fold after backing up the Anaheim Ducks’ first two games of the season.
Andersen, who swapped places with current Anaheim backup Viktor Fasth, could get the start tonight. Of the three goalies currently on Norfolk’s roster (Igor Bobkov and Jeff Deslauriers, the latter of whom played his first game of the season at any level against Charlotte on Sunday), Andersen has by far the best statistics with a 2.48 goals-against average and .924 save percentage.
Pither's Dream Debut
In his first three games as a Checker last week, center Luke Pither, who the Carolina Hurricanes acquired in a Jan. 13 trade that sent goaltender Brian Boucher to Philadelphia, has five points (3g, 2a). That includes at least one point in all three games and a career-high, three-point performance (2g, 1a) against Norfolk on Sunday.
The games were the first AHL outings of the season for Pither, who scored 22 points (9g, 13a) in 24 games for the ECHL's Wheeling Nailers prior to the trade. In 109 career AHL games with Adirondack and Charlotte, Pither now has 35 points (14g, 21a).
Another Big Win
The Checkers' 6-1 win over Norfolk on Sunday marked the sixth time they have won by four or more goals this season, which ties them with Toronto for the most four-plus goal victories in the AHL. Two of those have come in the Checkers' last five games, including a 7-0 victory at Oklahoma City on Jan. 12 that tied a team record for largest margin of victory.
The win over Norfolk was the Checkers' biggest at home since they won by six in an 8-2 win on March 27, 2011, also against Norfolk. The team has won by five or more goals on home ice a total of four times, with three coming during the team's inaugural season in 2010-11.
Dating back to Jan. 3, the Checkers have earned points in five consecutive road games, marking the longest active road point streak in the AHL. That streak includes four consecutive wins since Jan. 4, which is the longest active road winning streak in the league.
Despite having one of the busiest road schedules of any team to this point (only four AHL teams have played more than their 22 road games), the Checkers are 14-4-4 away from Time Warner Cable Arena this season.
Wallace Goes Wild
Dating back to Jan. 4, Checkers forward Tim Wallace has nine points (3g, 6a) during an active-four game point streak that took place on either side of a recall to Carolina Hurricanes training camp. During that time, he has exactly doubled his output from his first 34 games of the season.
Wallace's streak marks the most productive four-game stretch of any Charlotte skater this season, narrowly edging out an eight-points-in-four-games performance by Zac Dalpe earlier in the month (Jan. 4-12). It includes a four-point performance at Oklahoma City on Jan. 11 that marked a personal career high and tied a team record set on eight previous occasions.
Since their selections to the 2013 All-Star Classic less than two hours before Thursday's game, defenseman Michal Jordan and goalie Justin Peters have enjoyed two standout games.
Jordan, an All-Star for the first time in his three professional seasons, has three goals in his last two games, including his first career multi-goal game against Grand Rapids on Wednesday. Jordan, who had nine goals in his previous 182 AHL games, now has four points (3g, 1a) during an active three-game point streak while improving his plus/minus rating to plus-14, which is tied for first on the team and tied for fifth among AHL defensemen.
Peters, set to make his second All-Star appearance and first as a Checker, has stopped 67 of 71 shots, including a 36-save performance that tied his season high on Thursday, since the selection. Dating back to Dec. 11, he is 9-3-1 with a 1.53 goals-against average, .944 save percentage and four shutouts. For the season, he ranks ninth in the AHL with a 2.27 goals-against average, tied for 10th with a .920 save percentage and second with five shutouts.
Nash Approaching Career Highs
Checkers center Riley Nash has 10 points (4g, 6a) in his last eight games, marking his most productive eight-game stretch in three professional seasons. That run started with a three-point performance at Lake Erie on Jan. 4 that tied his career high.
With 25 points on the season (8g, 17a), Nash has already surpassed his total from last season (20) despite playing 17 fewer games. He would need just seven points in the season's final 34 games to match his career high of 32 points set during his rookie season in 2010-11. He only needs one assist to match his career high in that category, also set during his first pro campaign. Three of those helpers have come while shorthanded, tying him for first in the league.
Nash currently ranks fourth on the team and second among active players in scoring. His plus-9 rating is third-highest among all Checkers skaters.
The Checkers currently rank in the AHL's top 10 in goals scored per game (3.14 - 8th), goals allowed per game (2.48 - 5th), power-play percentage (20.6% - 7th) and penalty-killing percentage (86.7% - 4th). Only two other AHL teams, Springfield and Toronto, rank in the top 10 in all four categories. All three clubs currently lead their respective divisions.
In the Driver's Seat
The Checkers have began each day holding at least a share of the top spot in the South Division since winning at Rockford on Oct. 20, a span of 93 days. They are currently tied with second-place Texas, which has an identical 25-13-5 record but loses the tiebreak by virtue of having one more shootout win than the Checkers. Charlotte is 9-4-3 in divisional play this season, having played the fewest inter-divisional games of any South team to this point.
- Justin Shugg has points in each of his last five games (Jan. 12-20; 1g, 4a)
- Tim Wallace has points in each of his last four games (Jan. 4-20; 3g, 6a), assists in each of his last three (Jan. 6-20; 2g, 6a) and goals in each of his last two (Jan. 11-20; 2g, 4a)
- Marc-Andre Gragnani has points in each of his last four games (Dec. 14-Jan. 20; 1g, 3a)
- Michal Jordan has points in each of his last three games (Jan. 16-20; 3g, 1a) and goals in each of his last two (Jan. 17-20; 3g, 0a)
- Luke Pither has points in each of his last three games (Jan. 16-20; 3g, 2a)
- Riley Nash has assists and points in each of his last two games (Jan. 17-20; 1g, 3a)
- Chris Terry has assists and points in each of his last two games (Jan. 17-20; 1g, 2a)
- Jerome Samson has points in each of his last two games (Jan. 4-6; 1g, 1a)
- A.J. Jenks (upper body, Jan. 17) - missed one game
- Jerome Samson (upper body, Jan. 6) - missed six games
- Nicolas Blanchard (upper body, Jan. 3) - missed eight games
- Jan. 18 - (RW) Tim Wallace reassigned to Charlotte from Carolina (NHL)
- Jan. 17 - (RW) Andreas Nodl assigned to Charlotte from Carolina (NHL)
- Jan. 17 - (F) Brett Sutter reassigned to Charlotte from Carolina (NHL)
- Jan. 16 - (RW) Matt Beca recalled to Charlotte from South Carolina (ECHL)
- Jan. 18 - (D) Tommi Kivisto reassigned to Florida (ECHL) from Charlotte
- Jan. 18 - (RW) Matthew Pistilli released from professional tryout contract
- Jan. 18 - (C) Jeremy Welsh recalled to Carolina (NHL) from Charlotte
- Jan. 16 - (LW) Leigh Salters released from professional tryout contract