Lest they forget it, Brett Sutter provided the Checkers with a reminder of his importance to the team earlier this week.
During Wednesday’s home match-up with Texas, the team seemed to suffer a letdown after Zac Dalpe scored an early goal to put the Midwest Division leaders in the driver’s seat against an opponent that began the game 11 points behind them in the standings. The Checkers didn’t generate much on two consecutive power-play chances immediately following the goal, and just minutes later, their lead was gone after two quick strikes by Texas.
That’s when Sutter, in his first game back from the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes, fought off a defender and passed the puck to himself off the back of the net, cut inside another Stars player and stuffed home the tying goal. It was a trademark effort for the Checkers’ captain at a time when his team needed a jolt, helping the team to an eventual 3-2 victory.
“That was a perfect case of how he leads by example,” said Checkers coach Jeff Daniels. “I didn’t even realize until I watched it again the next morning how hard he had to work to make that happen.”
Since the team had been playing well in Sutter’s absence – the Checkers are 6-1-0 over the course of his two NHL recalls this season – the effort served as a timely reminder of his contributions.
“I told the guys yesterday that maybe I should just stay away because they were playing so well,” joked Sutter.
While they’re happy to see him do well up top (in limited ice time, Sutter has three points, all assists, in eight games with the Hurricanes this season after posting two points in his previous 19 NHL contests), for reasons demonstrated on Wednesday, the Checkers are indeed pleased to have him back. In addition to his leadership role, the 24-year-old veteran of five AHL seasons is one of the team’s top defensive forwards and penalty killers.
The latter was again evident in the third period, when Sutter helped shut the door on two consecutive Texas power plays, including a brief five-on-three overlap, which would have tied the game with just over five minutes remaining in regulation.
“He gives our room a lot of energy,” said Checkers goalie Mike Murphy after the game. “You see him on the penalty kill and he’s flying out there, and he’s one of the hardest-working players in the league.”
“Suttsy is the leader of this team, and he works every shift,” said Daniels. “They see the way guys like him and (Nicolas) Blanchard work, and it’s contagious.”
Sutter has made a habit of fast contributions upon returning to the lineup, which isn’t always the case for players who return disappointed about not sticking in the NHL. He’s scored goals in the first period of each of his first games back following recalls this season, which he admitted may not be a coincidence.
“I think when you come down you have a little extra confidence with the puck and you have just a little bit more time to make a play,” he said. “Emotionally it’s tough, but this organization is so deep that you have to come down and make a statement right away.”
As for twice having to re-assume his captain’s role on a team that had been successful in his absence, Sutter said that, aside from the occasional chirp, the transition has not been awkward.
“We’re all very close, and the guys make it easy for me to fit back in right away,” he said.
Daniels said that the Checkers are likely to keep the same group of players on the roster for the time being, with Jared Staal and Justin Shugg having sat out as healthy scratches on Wednesday due to the team carrying 14 healthy forwards.
“It’s not ideal, especially when you have a young guy that’s sitting out, but it’s a long season with plenty of injuries and call-ups,” said Daniels.
Daniels added that Shugg, a 19-year-old rookie who started the season with the ECHL’s Florida Everblades, has shown improvement since the preseason. Shugg did not record a point in his first eight AHL games, but has three points (1g, 2a) in his last two.
“I think he’s played pretty well and he just sat out because of the numbers game,” said Daniels. “He’s been working harder and is making the adjustment to the speed at this level. He wants to stay here, and he’s been working at everything we’ve asked him to going back to the beginning of the season when he went to Florida.”
Injured defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti and center Cedric McNicoll did not practice with the team on either Thursday or Friday of this week. Defenseman Brett Bellemore practiced Friday after sitting out Thursday’s session.