Charlotte now leads the season series with its South Division rivals with a record of 4-3-0, with tonight’s game set to conclude the eight-game slate. In the Western Conference standings, the fourth-place Checkers have a 12-point lead over the Barons, one of the teams chasing them for a playoff spot in the regular season’s final 20 games.
The game continues a home-heavy month of March, with 13 of the next 16 games set to take place at Time Warner Cable Arena. After a brief trip to Norfolk on Wednesday, the Checkers will play a five-game home stand.
Faced with significant injuries to top forwards Zac Dalpe and Andreas Nodl in their previous game and the Carolina Hurricanes’ recall of captain Brett Sutter earlier in the day, the Checkers got the contributions they needed from others to secure a 3-2 victory over Oklahoma City on Sunday.
Matt Beca and David Rutherford, high scorers at the ECHL level who have spent much of the post-lockout era with the Checkers, scored the team’s first two goals, both on the power play. Justin Shugg, a third player who started the season with the Florida Everblades, scored the eventual game-winner with three minutes remaining in the third period.
Beca’s goal was his second of the season and third of his AHL career, while Rutherford’s was the first of his career.
“It’s great, and we need that,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “We need guys to chip in as a team, and I thought we did that tonight.”
Goals from players like those will continue to be crucial down the stretch, but it may be goalie John Muse who is now set for the most increased role. With Carolina Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward suffering a reported knee injury on Sunday night, All-Star netminder Justin Peters looks to be on his way to Carolina, perhaps for a significant amount of time.
Peters has started 16 of the Checkers’ last 20 games, including a 33-save effort on Sunday. He ranks second in the AHL with five shutouts, fourth with 22 wins, tied for seventh with a .921 save percentage and ninth with a 2.29 goals-against average, suggesting he’s ready to build on his previous NHL experience.
“He’s proven that all year,” said Daniels. “I’m sure they’ll be comfortable with him if needed.”
Meanwhile, Muse, who could be thrust into starting duty as early as tonight, is 3-1-0 in five appearances this season with a 3.42 goals-against average and .877 save percentage. Upon having to take over the starters’ reigns for a prolonged period of time last season, he went 10-3-2 with a goals-against average at 1.81 and a save percentage of .941.
Updates: Muse is expected to start tonight's game. The Checkers have recalled Rob Madore from the ECHL's Florida Everblades as backup. Read more here.
Having only arrived in Charlotte at 11 a.m. Sunday following a shootout victory in Texas the night before, the Barons looked no worse for the wear early in the game as they led 9-0 in shots midway through the first period.
That said, they, like the Checkers, had difficulty generating consistent offense throughout the game, with Peters and Charlotte’s relatively-intact defense keeping a dangerous offensive team at bay. Even without a handful of top players that are now plying their trade with the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers, the Barons have scored at least three goals in seven of their last nine games coming in to Sunday’s match-up.
“That’s where we have the most experience in our lineup right now,” said Daniels of his six blueliners, all of whom have played at least part of one previous season in the league.
The Checkers held NHL veteran Jonathan Cheechoo off the score sheet on Sunday and will hope to continue to be on the right side of what’s been a boom-or-bust season for him ever since he joined the team in January. All 18 of his points have come in six games, including a five-point outing against Charlotte on Feb. 1, while he has failed to score in eight others.
With starting goalie Yann Danis still with the Oilers, the Barons have been using a combination of Olivier Roy, who made 17 saves against the Checkers on Sunday, and Niko Hovinen. Hovinen, a 6-foot-7, 200-pound Finn who the Oilers acquired on waivers earlier this season, is 3-1-1 with a 3.29 goals-against average and .882 save percentage in his first five AHL games this season.
Of the Checker's 174 goals scored this season, only 69 of those (39.7 percent) were scored by players who will be available for tonight's game. Scoring leader Chris Terry has accounted for 22 of those, with Jeremy Welsh next with 10. No other player has scored more than six (Michal Jordan and Luke Pither). The Checkers are currently missing eight of their top 10 scorers to due injury or recall to the NHL.
Peters Wins Again
Checkers goalie Justin Peters made 33 saves on Sunday to record his 22nd win of the season and his third in as many starts. He now ranks fourth in the AHL in that category and is four wins short of tying his single-season career high of 2006 set with the Albany River Rats in 2009-10. Peters, who participated in his second career All-Star Classic in January, is second in the AHL with five shutouts, seventh with a .921 save percentage and ninth with a 2.29 goals-against average. He has started 16 of the Checkers' last 20 games dating back to Jan. 11.
Special Special Teams
The Checkers went 2-for-4 on the power play against Oklahoma City on Monday, improving their total to 12-for-34 over their last seven games (35.3 percent). Additionally, they killed both Barons power plays, improving their penalty killing total to 22-for-22 over their last six outings. They have not allowed a power-play goals since Feb. 14 at Chicago.
For the season, the Checkers have the AHL's fourth-best power play at 21.6 percent and the second-best penalty kill at 86.6 percent. They are the only team in the league to have both special teams units rank in the top six.
Gragnani's Helping Hand
Despite missing 21 games this season due to injury and illness, Checkers defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani ranks tied for second in the AHL and tied for first among active players with 17 power-play assists (Justin Schultz, in the NHL since early January, has 18). 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 seven assists in his last seven games, including five on the man advantage. Eighteen of Gragnani's 23 points this season have come on the power play.
Chris Terry has points in each of his last four games (Feb. 22-March 3; 2g, 2a)
Marc-Andre Gragnani has assists and points in each of his last two games (March 1-3; 0g, 2a)
Jerome Samson has points in each of his last two games (Jan. 4-6; 1g, 1a)
Zac Dalpe (lower body, March 1) - missed one game
Andreas Nodl (lower body, March 1) - missed one game, out for season
A.J. Jenks (upper body, Jan. 17) - missed 15 games
Jerome Samson (upper body, Jan. 6) - missed 20 games
March 1 - (C) Zac Dalpe reassigned to Charlotte from Carolina (NHL)
Feb. 28 – (C) Jeremy Welsh reassigned to Charlotte from Carolina (NHL)
Feb. 28 – (D) Michal Jordan reassigned to Charlotte from Carolina (NHL)
Feb. 27 – (D) Marc-Andre Gragnani reassigned to Charlotte from Carolina (NHL)
Feb. 25 – (RW) Andreas Nodl reassigned to Charlotte from Carolina (NHL)
March 3 - (C) Brett Sutter recalled to Carolina (NHL) from Charlotte
March 2 - (D) Tommi Kivisto reassigned to Florida (ECHL) from Charlotte