Charlotte will be looking to keep its excellent record against its South Division rival intact, having gone 4-0-1 in five previous meetings this season. Three of those games have gone to overtime, with Charlotte winning the last one courtesy of a Riley Nash goal on Jan. 13. Following this weekend's set, the teams will face off one final time in Houston on March 21.
The Checkers, now just three points behind Texas for the division lead with a game in hand, have an eight-point lead on third-place Houston. The teams currently occupy the fourth and fifth seeds in the Western Conference.
It’s not often a team will be pleased to lose its leading scorer, but that was the case in Charlotte on Friday.
Chris Terry, the franchise’s all-time leader in games played, goals, assists and points, earned his first trip to Carolina in four seasons and could make his NHL debut as soon as tonight. Terry had 30 points in his last 26 games dating back to Dec. 30, including two (1g, 1a) in Wednesday’s 3-2 overtime win in Norfolk.
In handing Terry that well-earned reward, the Hurricanes also sent some assistance to Charlotte earlier in the day. Centers Brett Sutter and Jeremy Welsh, back with the team after brief NHL stints, are now the team’s top two active goal scorers with 13 and 11, respectively. Sutter has eight points in his last four AHL games (1g, 7a), while Welsh has six in his last six (4g, 2a).
The net result is that the Checkers will again have the exact number of players required to ice a full lineup tonight, with injured forwards Zac Dalpe, A. J. Jenks, Jerome Samson and Justin Shugg not expected to return. That said, for coach Jeff Daniels, the message for the last few months has been about consistency regardless of personnel.
“We’ve stuck with (our system),” he said. “No matter who’s here, we play our best when we play with speed and get pucks deep.”
As such, a bulk of the offensive load will continue to fall on the team’s handful of experienced players, most notably defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani. Gragnani had a hand in all three goals on Wednesday, including his overtime strike, to extend his scoring run to 11 points (2g, 9a) in his last nine games. He has also been a key cog in a power play that is 15-for-44 (34.1 percent) in that same time frame.
John Muse, who has started each of the Checkers’ last two games since All-Star Justin Peters joined Carolina to fill in for Cam Ward, will likely do so again tonight. Muse stopped 31 shots on Wednesday to improve to 15-5-2 all-time at the AHL level.
The Aeros come to Charlotte as winners of seven of their last 10 games, though they have exchanged wins and losses over their six outings. Their last game, a 5-1 win over Abbotsford on Saturday, was among their more convincing victories.
With four points (2g, 2a), Johan Larsson was among the stars of that game, giving him five points in three games since returning from the Minnesota Wild. With rookie Jason Zucker having joined early-season standouts Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund and Jonas Brodin in the NHL, Larsson is the team's second-highest scorer behind Justin Fontaine, who also found the back of the net against Abbotsford.
With Minnesota placing Darcy Kuemper on injured reserve, Houston's goaltending, like Charlotte's, also enters a transition period. Matt Hackett, who made 24 saves in his eighth consecutive start last Saturday, has joined the Wild for the first time this season. Kuemper and Hackett made up the Aeros' tandem to start the season.
As a result, rookie Cody Reichard, who has yet to play after signing a professional tryout contract on Feb. 17, could be in line to make his first career AHL appearance. The undrafted 26-year-old was last seen playing with the ECHL's Stockton Thunder following a four-year career with Miami University in Ohio. He had backed up Hackett for the last five games, with the more experienced John Curry, the only other goaltender on the roster, not dressing since Feb. 16.
Of the Checker's 179 goals scored this season, only 60 of those (33.5 percent) were scored by players available for tonight's game. Brett Sutter is the team's active leader with 13, Jeremy Welsh is next with 11 and no other player has scored more than six (Michal Jordan and Luke Pither). The Checkers are currently missing nine of their top 11 scorers to due injury or recall to the NHL, with Sutter (33 points), Marc-Andre Gragnani (27) and Welsh (21) making up the remaining three.
Should Chris Terry make his NHL debut on Saturday after earning his first-ever recall the day before, he would become the 15th player to play for both the Checkers and Hurricanes since the NHL season began in January. Carolina currently has eight players on its roster who started the season with Charlotte.
Special Special Teams
The Checkers went 2-for-4 on the power play against Norfolk on Wednesday, improving their total to 15-for-44 over their last nine games (34.1 percent). Additionally, they killed five of six Admirals power plays, improving their penalty killing total to 31-for-32 (96.9 percent) over their last eight outings. Their goal allowed with one second remaining on a Norfolk power play in the third period broke a streak of 26 consecutive penalties killed, the team's longest of the season.
For the season, the Checkers have the AHL's second-best power play at 22.0 percent and the second-best penalty kill at 86.8 percent. They are the only team in the league to have both special teams units rank in the top four.
Gragnani's Helping Hand
Despite missing 21 games this season due to injury and illness, Checkers defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani ranks tied for first in the AHL with 18 power-play assists (Justin Schultz, in the NHL since early January, also 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 11 points (2g, 9a) in his last nine games, including seven on the man advantage.
Twenty-one of Gragnani's 27 points this season (3g, 24a) have come on the power play, ranking him third among AHL defensemen in that category. The Checkers are a full 10 percentage points better with Gragnani in the lineup (25.5 percent) than without him (15.2 percent).
The Checkers have won each of their last four overtime games, including Wednesday's 3-2 victory over Norfolk. All four victories came during the five-minute period preceding the shootout, with three ending on power-play goals.
The Checkers have won a total of five games during the five-minute, four-on-four overtime period this season, more than any other AHL team. Including shootouts, they are 7-5 in overtime games this season.
Including this weekend's games against Houston, 10 of the Checkers' next 14 games will be played against South Division opponents - a run will conclude the team's slate of divisional games this season. Eight of those games will take place in Charlotte. The Checkers are 12-7-3 against the South Division this seaosn.
Marc-Andre Gragnani has points in each of his last four games (March 1-6; 2g, 4a) and goals in each of his last two (March 4-6; 2g, 2a)
David Rutherford has points in each of his last three games (March 3-6; 1g, 2a) and assists in each of his last two (March 4-6; 0g, 2a)
Luke Pither has assists and points in each of his last three games (March 3-6; 0g, 3a)
Jerome Samson has points in each of his last two games (Jan. 4-6; 1g, 1a)
Zac Dalpe (lower body, March 1) - missed three games
Andreas Nodl (lower body, March 1) - missed three games, out for season
A.J. Jenks (upper body, Jan. 17) - missed 17 games
Jerome Samson (upper body, Jan. 6) - missed 22 games
March 8 - (C) Jeremy Welsh reassigned to Charlotte from Carolina (NHL)
March 8 - (C) Brett Sutter reassigned to Charlotte from Carolina (NHL)
March 6 - (RW) David Marshall signed to professional tryout contract
March 4 - (G) Rob Madore recalled to Charlotte from Florida (ECHL)
March 8 - (LW) Chris Terry recalled to Carolina (NHL) from Charlotte
March 4 - (G) Justin Peters recalled to Carolina (NHL) from Charlotte
March 2 - (D) Tommi Kivisto reassigned to Florida (ECHL) from Charlotte