With the exception of short pockets of scheduling where one member of the team’s tandem might be injured or in the NHL, the Checkers have rarely employed a true No. 1 goaltender. There’s no question that they have one now.
Since Dan Ellis joined the Hurricanes at the end of the NHL lockout, veteran Justin Peters has started nine of a possible 11 games – one of the busiest stretches for a Checkers goaltender in the team’s three AHL seasons. During that time, he’s 6-5-0 with a 2.37 goals-against average, .916 save percentage and one shutout.
Two of those recent starts came with a quicker-than-usual turnaround, as Peters was in net for a Saturday night game against San Antonio before getting right back in for an afternoon rematch the next day. He was at his best in the second game, stopping 28 of 29 shots in a 2-1 victory.
“He’s one of the best-conditioned athletes on the team, he wants the net and he’s our No. 1 guy,” coach Jeff Daniels said following that game.
“It’s more of a mindset than anything,” said Peters. “Physically, I feel more than capable.”
Peters kicked off the Checkers’ six-game road swing by making a season-high 37 saves in a 4-3 overtime win over the Chicago Wolves on Thursday. The team is off Friday, making it possible that he could once again get both starts in another night-and-afternoon set of back-to-back games coming up this weekend.
A key difference in last weekend and the one coming up is that this one involves travel, with the Checkers set to make a four-and-a-half hour bus trip for a 4 p.m. start in Grand Rapids after an 8:30 game in Milwaukee the night before.
Helping Peters’ cause is the fact that such travel is tough on everyone, whether they play or not.
“The playing field is equal,” he said.
As well as Peters has played during the string of starts, backup John Muse, the last Checkers goalie to start this many games in a short period of time when Peters was in the NHL and Mike Murphy was injured last season, provides a solid second option.
“We have all the confidence in the world in him,” said Daniels of Muse, who has won both of his starts this season after going 10-3-3 in his rookie campaign.
Muse will see more action in March and April by default. Featuring just eight games in 28 days, February is the Checkers’ lightest month of the season. The scheduling in March (14 games) and April (eight games in 20 days) will make it impossible for Peters to do it all by himself.
While rust is normally in issue for goaltenders who haven’t played in a long period of time, Muse proved to be an exception to that rule last season as he began his Checkers career by stopping 72 of 73 shots in three appearances spread over the course over the course of 35 days last season.
“Muse has been sharp in practice and he’ll be ready,” said Daniels. “He’s so focused and so professional, he understands that we don’t have a lot of games right now and Peters is our guy.”
Until then, Peters, whose two-way contract turns into a one-way deal next season, will continue to try to prove that he belongs in the NHL.
“To get to the next level you have to be at the top of the level you’re at,” he said. “If I’m able to do that here, I know I’ll be in a good spot.”
JORDAN’S NHL DEBUT
After a stellar month that began with a selection to the AHL All-Star Classic and continued with the best all-around stretch of his professional career, Checkers defenseman Michal Jordan earned his first NHL game in Carolina’s 3-1 win over Toronto on Thursday. Jordan and defensive partner Bobby Sanguinetti played around 12 minutes apiece while posting an even plus/minus rating to back goalie Dan Ellis, who stopped 22 of 23 shots.
“It was a great experience, one of those days you’re dreaming about as a kid and won’t forget for the rest of your life,” said Jordan in an interview posted on CarolinaHurricanes.com
With Carolina regulars Tim Gleason and Joni Pitkanen both considered day-to-day for the time being, it remains to be seen how long Jordan will stay with the Hurricanes. The team does not play again until visiting Montreal on Monday.
With Jordan out of the lineup, Marc-Andre Gragnani, another top candidate to get an NHL recall, recorded two key power-play assists (video here
) in the Checkers’ win over Chicago, including one on Chris Terry’s overtime winner. In doing so, Gragnani, the only member of Charlotte’s defensive core with NHL experience (73 games), equaled his point total from his previous eight games since returning from a lower-body injury.
Despite missing 21 games this season due to injury and illness, Gragnani, 25, ranks tied for fifth in the AHL with 14 power-play assists. With the four players ahead of him all playing in the NHL, he is in a three-way tie for first among active skaters.
Gragnani’s franchise-record, four-power play assists in the Checkers’ 6-4, come-from-behind win in Grand Rapids on Oct. 26 are still the most posted by any AHL player in a single game this season.
DALPE KEEPS THE PACE
Zac Dalpe said last week that he wouldn’t let the disappointment of leaving the NHL affect his play, and he was right.
Since rejoining the Checkers last week, the 23-year-old forward scored goals in two of the team’s three games, with his career-high, seven-game point streak coming to an end in Chicago on Thursday. That streak began long before his NHL stint, making it safe to say that he’s picked up where he left off.
“You have to, because if they need someone up top and you’re not going at your best, then we can’t recommend you,” said Daniels.
The scoring is nice, but it could be Dalpe’s all-around game that will be his ticket to another shot in Carolina. He’s adjusted well to playing on the right wing full-time this season, as his plus-14 rating ranks first on the team and tied for 16th in the AHL.
He’s also continued to stay out of the penalty box, as his eight penalty minutes are the lowest of any Checkers skater who has played at least 30 games. Though the Hurricanes may want Dalpe to be a grittier presence moving forward, Daniels said that the low penalty total isn’t a reflection of that.
“You can be gritty without taking penalties,” said Daniels. “It’s just a matter of winning those puck battles and being hard to play against, and I think that’s what they want to see up top.”
Dalpe took his fourth minor penalty of the season on Thursday – a delay-of-game infraction for shooting the puck over the glass.
POWER PLAY HITS THE ROAD
The Checkers enter this weekend with a striking split between their power play’s performance at home (29th in the AHL at 11.6 percent) and on the road (first in the AHL at 25.8 percent).
That disparity, seen throughout the season, has only become wider in recent days. Thursday’s 2-for-3 performance in Chicago marked the Checkers’ third straight road game with two power play goals. Meanwhile, they’re scoreless in their last four home games (0-for-15).
When asked about the discrepancy, Daniels chalked it up to circumstance.
“I think we’ve had different personnel in every game recently and we’re trying a lot of new things,” he said, adding that it was hard to compare today’s power play with that of three months ago.
A recent change saw Dalpe move back to running the point on one unit. With elite puck-movers Justin Faulk and Sanguinetti in Carolina, that’s a configuration the Checkers would like to keep using as long as they have enough forward depth to compensate.
They’re attempting to do just that with Matt Marquardt, a high scorer in the ECHL who seems to have fit right in with the Checkers.
“He’s a big body in front of the net and it allows us that flexibility,” said Daniels of Marquardt, who checks in at 6-foot-3 and 229 pounds.
With the Checkers having enjoyed considerably more power-play opportunities on the road despite a close-to-even amount of games played (120 vs. 86), their combined success rate at home and on the road still puts them seventh in the AHL at 19.9 percent.