The Checkers’ longest road trip of the season, in terms of distance traveled, commences tonight with the first of a back-to-back set against the Abbotsford Heat.
The games in Western Canada (both 10 p.m. starts on Charlotte time) will conclude the four-game season series between the clubs, which split the first two at Time Warner Cable Arena in late January. The Checkers are 2-4-0 all-time against the Heat, top affiliate of the NHL’s Calgary Flames, including a 1-1-0 record in their only other trip to Abbotsford in January of last year.
Following this weekend’s set, the Checkers are off for five days before concluding their six-game road swing in Norfolk next Friday.
Knowing they had a 12-hour travel day ahead of them, the Checkers again took advantage of a lightly-scheduled month of February by arriving in Abbotsford two days early. That allowed them to have a full practice day on Thursday ahead of this weekend’s games.
“You’re dealing with the time change and the travel, just because it takes so long to get out there,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “It’s a long day.”
The distance has also affected the team’s roster, as the parent Carolina Hurricanes, dealing with an ever-growing number of injuries, are cognizant of the fact that it wouldn’t be nearly as convenient as usual to summon help from the Checkers. As such, centers Riley Nash and Jeremy Welsh, who joined Carolina earlier in the week, stayed in Raleigh even though the team had an extra forward at the time of the Checkers’ departure on Wednesday evening.
The Hurricanes, who already have nine players who started the season in Charlotte on their roster, could have even made it 10 by recalling another defenseman but instead chose to hand top junior prospect Ryan Murphy his NHL debut on Thursday.
Moving down the chain, the Checkers could have as many as nine players who started the season in the ECHL in tonight’s lineup after Wednesday’s recall of forward Brody Sutter. Sutter, cousin of Checkers captain and former Heat forward Brett Sutter, is in line for his season debut at the AHL level but could also find himself as a healthy extra depending on the health of David Rutherford. Rutherford, whose hometown is around 30 minutes away from Abbotsford, has missed the last five games with a concussion.
“My mom has never seen me play since I turned pro,” said Rutherford. “I’m thrilled just with the opportunity to be back in the lineup, but I’ve learned that until warm-ups are over, you never really know.”
In goal, Justin Peters, who has played in 13 of the Checkers’ last 16 games, has a good chance of playing both games against the Heat given that they are the only games within a wider 11-day span.
The Heat will be eager to return home after concluding a winless five-game road trip that marks the team’s longest stretch without a victory this season. They went 0-4-1 on the eight-day excursion, earning their first point by way of a 4-3 shootout loss in Chicago on Wednesday.
During that stretch, the Heat, who have the AHL’s best defense at 2.33 goals allowed per game, gave up three or more goals in four of those contests, including a season-high seven to Rockford on Saturday. Meanwhile, their No. 29 ranked offense at (2.24 goals per game) scored a total of eight goals in its last five games, including three one-goal outings.
Heading into tonight’s game, the Heat have the lowest winning percentage of any division leader (.556), as they are two points ahead of Toronto in the North.
Goaltending has been an area of high turnover for the Heat as the Flames cope with an injury to starter Miikka Kiprusoff. Abbotsford’s Leland Irving and Danny Taylor have both seen recent NHL action, with a swap of the two goalies resulting in Irving’s return to the Heat last week. Irving played his first AHL game in over a month on Wednesday, making 35 saves in regulation and overtime but going 0-for-3 in the shootout with Chicago.
All-Star Barry Brust, who ranks third in the AHL with a 2.10 goals-against average (Taylor is first at 1.82), has started six of the Heat’s last eight games and remains on the roster. His five shutouts are tied with Peters for second-most in the AHL.
Former Checker Brett Carson has been with the Heat since the end of the NHL’s lockout, scoring nine points (5g, 4a) in 16 games. That mark ties him with forwards Krys Kolanos and Max Reinhart for the most on the team during that time. In addition to his goal on Wednesday, Carson posted a game-high, plus-3 rating.
The Checkers set a new franchise record with five power-play goals in Milwaukee on Saturday (5-for-8), becoming the only team in the AHL to accomplish that feat this season. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton was the last team to do so on Jan. 12, 2012.
The game also marked the team's fourth consecutive road game with at least two power play goals (11-for-21, 52.4 percent), a streak that ended with the team's 0-for-3 showing in Grand Rapids on Sunday. For the season, the Checkers rank fifth in the AHL with a 21.2 percent success rate on the man advantage and first with a 27.5 percent success rate on the road.
Forward Chris Terry's overtime goal on Thursday marked his sixth game-winning goal of the season, tied for most in the AHL. The total, which includes two overtime winners, breaks the Checkers' single-season record of five, set by Zach Boychuk during the team's inaugural season in 2010-11. Terry also has one shootout-winning goal, which does not count as a game-winning goal.
In the game following his overtime winner on Saturday, Terry recorded three points (2g, 1a), marking his second three-point game in five outings. The fourth-year forward now has 24 points (10g, 14a) in his last 20 games, pulling him into a tie for 17th in AHL scoring with 40 points (19g, 21a) in 49 outings. He has recorded at least one point in 15 of the team's last 20 games
Gragnani's Helping Hand
Despite missing 21 games this season due to injury and illness, Checkers defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani is tied for third in the AHL with 15 power-play assists. Gragnani, the only player in the AHL to record four power-play assists in a single game this season (at Grand Rapids on Oct. 26), has four assists in his last three games, including three on the man advantage. Sixteen of Gragnani's 20 points this season have come on the power play.
Peters Shoulders the Load
Checkers goalie Justin Peters has played in 13 of the Checkers' last 16 games, marking the busiest stretch of any of the team's three goaltenders this season. It is also the busiest period for a Checkers goaltender since John Muse played 12 of 13 games from Jan. 24-Feb. 25 of last season.
For the season, Peters ranks eighth in the AHL with 34 games played and tied for fourth with 19 wins. He is also tied for second with five shutouts and is 13th with a 2.41 goals-against average.
The Checkers have compiled a record of 17-7-4 on the road, giving them a total of 38 points that ranks second in the league behind Syracuse's 42 (20-6-2). Charlotte is currently in the midst of a six-game road swing that marks the third time they have played six or more consecutive games away from Time Warner Cable Arena this season.
- Marc-Andre Gragnani has assists and points in each of his last three games (Feb. 14-17; 0g, 4a)
- Justin Shugg has points in each of his last two games (Feb. 15-16; 1g, 1a)
- Jerome Samson has points in each of his last two games (Jan. 4-6; 1g, 1a)
- David Rutherford (upper body, Feb. 5) - missed five games
- A.J. Jenks (upper body, Jan. 17) - missed 11 games
- Jerome Samson (upper body, Jan. 6) - missed 16 games
- Feb. 20 - (C) Brody Sutter recalled to Charlotte from Florida (ECHL)
- Feb. 18 - (C) Jeremy Welsh recalled to Carolina (NHL) from Charlotte
- Feb. 18 - (C) Riley Nash recalled to Carolina (NHL) from Charlotte