Though these two meetings mark the first time that the Checkers’ South Division rival has visited Charlotte this season, the teams are no stranger to one another. They’ve already played four times in San Antonio this season, with the Checkers winning the first three before San Antonio broke through with a 5-2 win on Dec. 30.
Following tonight’s game, the teams play an afternoon matinee at 3 p.m. Sunday. They will then conclude their eight-game series in Charlotte in late March.
The Checkers are coming off their longest break of the season – a seven-day hiatus between a Feb. 1 game in Oklahoma City and their match-up tonight. With the AHL’s All-Star break preceding that, the Checkers have played just twice in the last 13 days.
“It’s a concern,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “We haven’t been in game mode much lately, but we’ve got to make sure we get right back at it from the drop of the puck this weekend.”
The week’s practices were designed with that goal in mind, with a day off and a day of power skating mixed in with the tougher days designed to keep the team in focus.
“We’ve been doing a lot of battle drills and things that prepare you for the game,” said Daniels.
Coming off a 7-3 loss in Oklahoma City in their last game, the Checkers will have more offense in their lineup thanks to the return of Zac Dalpe from the NHL but will miss the physical presence of Tim Wallace, who headed to Carolina in his stead.
“It gives us more skill but we also lose some grit and a guy that’s done the dirty work for us all year,” said Daniels. “The message to everyone is that we have to be hard to play against.”
Another change will see Matt Marquardt, signed to a tryout contract on Friday, make his Checkers debut in place of the injured David Rutherford. A.J. Jenks and Jerome Samson are also out.
With the team’s schedule so light, it’s not out of the question that No. 1 goalie Justin Peters could play both of this weekend’s games, despite the quick turnaround. Peters has been in goal for six of the team’s last seven games, including an abbreviated outing last week as both he and backup John Muse fell victim to Oklahoma City’s offensive outburst.
The Rampage have put together consecutive wins for the first time since Dec. 29-Jan. 3, and the timing may not be a coincidence.
Like most AHL teams, San Antonio has gone through a significant overhaul in the past month, including a handful of notable additions that immediately preceded their brief win streak. Those include Zach Hamill, a 2007 first-round pick who joined the Florida Panthers organization via trade, NHL veteran Jed Ortmeyer, who recently signed a tryout contract, and Mike Santorelli, a young center who spent the past two seasons in the NHL.
“There’s a lot of new personnel over there,” said Daniels. “They’re playing well lately and making a push.”
In the team’s recent game, a 5-2 win over Houston on Monday, Hamill (1g, 1a), Ortmeyer (2g) and Santorelli (1g, 1a) all picked up their first points with the team this season. The same was true of defenseman Brendon Nash (1g), brother of Checkers forward Riley, who joined the team via a January trade. Nash was playing his first game after missing the previous six due to injury.
The recent influx of players compensates nicely for the loss of Drew Shore and James Wright, both currently in the NHL, and veteran tryouts Jon Sim and Mike Mottau, who have moved on to other AHL teams.
Much to the Checkers’ dismay, the Rampage’s goaltending remains intact. Top prospect Jacob Markstrom has a 2.27 goals-against average and .943 save percentage in four meetings with Charlotte over the last two seasons. Two of those games included 44 or more saves, including a season-high, 49-stop effort in a 5-2 Rampage win on Dec. 30. The 6-foot-6 Swede is coming off a 30-save shutout in his last start, a 1-0 win over Rockford on Feb. 1.
The Rampage are in the midst of their longest road swing of the season, a nine-game trek caused by the annual rodeo in San Antonio.
Though tonight's game will mark his first in the AHL since Jan. 13, Checkers forward Zac Dalpe has an active five-game point streak (Jan. 4-13; 5g, 4a) that marks the longest active streak on the team and his most productive stretch of the season.
Dalpe, who posted two assists in six NHL games with Carolina, ranks tied for third on the team in scoring with 28 points and leads the team with a plus-14 (t-12th AHL) rating and 124 shots on goal (17th AHL).
A Major Plus
In less than a month, Checkers defenseman Justin Krueger has improved his plus-minus rating from minus-4 (Jan. 4) to his current mark of plus-12, which is tied for eighth among AHL defensemen. He posted a rating of even or better in 12 of those 13 games, including a three-game stretch from Jan. 4-11 where he posted a cumulative rating of plus-7.
Krueger currently ranks second on the team in plus/minus, two points behind forward Zac Dalpe. Krueger is the Checkers' all-time plus/minus leader, having posted a team-best, plus-16 rating last season.
Checkers forward Chris Terry recorded three points (1g, 2a) on Feb. 1, marking his largest single-game output of the season and the sixth time he has scored three or more points in a single game during his four seasons at the AHL level. The outing, which included a career-high seven shots on goal, allowed Terry, the Checkers' all-time leading scorer with 158 points in 198 games, to surpass Zach Boychuk for the team's top spot this season with 35 points (16g, 19a) in 44 games.
Since Dec. 30, Terry has recorded 19 points (7g, 12a) in his last 15 games, including five separate multi-point outings. He has recorded at least one point in 16 of those 19 games, including a six-game point streak to start the stretch (3g, 5a) and an active four-game streak (3g, 5a).
The Checkers, who last played on Feb. 1, will conclude their longest break of the entire season when they return to action tonight. The seven days off were one day longer than two six-day breaks the team enjoyed in November and December and another six-day break coming up from March 31-April 5. Overall, the Checkers have played just two games in the last 13 days.
Despite the break, only two teams (Houston and St. John's with 48 apiece) have played more than Charlotte's 47. The Checkers' eight total games in February are tied for the fewest of any AHL team this month.
Two of the AHL's top four teams, the Checkers and the Texas Stars, call the South Division home. The Stars currently lead Charlotte by two points, giving the Checkers a chance to pull back into a first-place tie with a win tonight.
Through the season's first 47 games, the Checkers played just 18 games within their division (10-5-3), by far the fewest of any team from the South. They make up for that in their final 29 contests, 14 of which will be played against divisional opponents.
The Checkers currently rank in the AHL's top 10 in goals scored per game (3.11 - 7th), goals allowed per game (2.62 - 8th), power-play percentage (20.0 - 7th) and penalty-killing percentage (85.2% - 6th). Only one other AHL team, Springfield, ranks in the top 10 in all four categories.
Zac Dalpe has points in each of his last five games (Jan. 4-13; 5g, 4a)
Chris Terry has points in each of his last four games (Jan. 25-Feb. 1; 3g, 5a)
Jerome Samson has points in each of his last two games (Jan. 4-6; 1g, 1a)
David Rutherford (upper body, Feb. 5) - out tonight
A.J. Jenks (upper body, Jan. 17) - missed six games
Jerome Samson (upper body, Jan. 6) - missed 11 games
Feb. 8 - (LW) Matt Marquardt signed to professional tryout contract
Feb. 3 - (F) Zac Dalpe reassigned to Charlotte from Carolina (NHL)
Feb. 3 - (RW) Tim Wallace recalled to Carolina (NHL) from Charlotte