The Checkers conclude their pre-holiday four-game home stand with a rematch against the league-leading Oklahoma City Barons.
The Barons (20-7-2), who have ranked as one of the league’s top teams all season, currently enjoy a six-point lead over the No. 2 seeded Checkers (17-11-2) in the Western Conference. Despite their dominance, the Checkers have proven to be something of an Achilles heel this season, having taken three of the four meetings between the two clubs including a 3-2 shootout victory this past Sunday. Milwaukee (1-0-0) is the only other AHL team that can claim a winning record against them this season.
Following tonight’s match-up, the Checkers will take a nine-day break before resuming play with a back-to-back, two-game road trip through Rockford and Chicago starting Dec. 30.
Including their recent win over the Barons, the Checkers have now won two consecutive games on the heels of their season-long four-game losing streak that came to an end against Chicago last Friday. They maintain a one-point Midwest Division lead over Milwaukee, which has won seven of its past 10 games to keep pace.
Helping the Checkers break out of their funk is the rediscovery of their offense, with multiple forwards snapping out of scoring droughts of varying degrees over the weekend. The Checkers managed six goals during their last two wins, which is good for three more than they scored during the entirety of their losing skid.
Four of those goals came on the power play, with coach Jeff Daniels believing that special teams have been a key to his team’s resurgence.
“When we were losing, a big part of it was our power play,” he said. “When we were down 2-0 against Chicago after the first period on Friday, that was what got us going.”
The Checkers have now scored at least one power-play goal in each of their last four games, including a three-goal performance on Friday that matched their season high. Continuing a season-long trend, they’ve also been good on the penalty kill, having thwarted 17 of the opposition’s last 18 power plays (94.4 percent).
Charlotte will likely field the same lineup as in their last two games, with forwards Cedric McNicoll and Justin Shugg out due to injury and defenseman Chris Murray out as a healthy scratch. Mike Murphy is expected to get the start in goal.
OKLAHOMA CITY STATS
1st Western Conference
GOALS / GAME
GOALS ALLOWED / GAME
PIM / GAME
Though the Barons gave them all they could handle on Sunday, taking a 2-1 lead with 5:28 left in the third period and forcing a late rally by the Checkers, Daniels said that he’s expecting a harder push from the league leaders tonight.
While the Checkers entered Sunday’s match-up riding a full day of rest with no recent travel, Oklahoma City arrived in town just six hours before the drop of the puck after a big shootout victory over their main divisional competition, the Houston Aeros, at home.
“I expect them to be a lot better on Tuesday,” said Daniels following the initial match-up. “We kind of caught them a little bit with playing an emotional game last night, so we’ll need to be better.”
“I know that they were tired, but I don’t think that we saw that,” said Zac Dalpe. “They didn’t look tired at all. Obviously we know they’re going to come a little harder.”
With Yann Danis not dressed for the last game with the expected birth of a child and Olivier Roy still on the roster following his recall from ECHL Stockton, goalie David LeNeveu will likely make his second consecutive start against the Checkers. The owner of the AHL’s third-best goals-against average (1.99) and fourth-best save percentage (.930) stopped 38 shots against Charlotte on Sunday.
The Barons will also be without two of their top five scorers in Philippe Cornet (t-4th AHL with 15 goals) and Teemu Hartikainen (13 points). Linus Omark, who has 7 points in seven games after starting the season with NHL Edmonton, will also be out of the lineup due to injury. Two more young players who already have significant NHL experience, Gilbert Brule and Magnus Paajarvi, will play for the Barons.
• SANGUINETTI’S HELPFUL RETURN: Since returning from a 10-game absence caused by a broken foot, defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti has recorded 4 assists in four games, making him the team’s highest scorer during that span. Despite playing in just two thirds of the team's games this season, the fourth-year blueliner ranks tied for fourth on the team in assists and tied with Michal Jordan for first among defensemen (10). Seven of his assists have come on the power play, which is most on the team behind Chris Terry (10).
• UNLIKELY HERO: Brett Bellemore’s goal to tie the game with 4:03 remaining in regulation against Oklahoma City on Sunday, just his fourth in 186 career AHL games, ended the longest goal drought of any player on the Checkers’ roster (58 games). When Bellemore does score his goals tend to be meaningful, as he has two game-winners to go along with his late equalizer on Sunday.
• SHOOTOUT ACE: Charlotte’s Mike Murphy ranks third in the AHL with a .900 save percentage in the shootout, having stopped nine of 10 shots against. Prior to allowing one goal on five attempts against Oklahoma City on Sunday, he was the only goaltender in the AHL to stop all comers in the shootout. The Checkers are now 3-1 in shootouts this season.
• SAMSON SHOOTS, SCORES: With goals in each of his last two games, Jerome Samson is now the Checkers’ leader in goals (12) and power-play goals (7). He is also the AHL’s leader in shots on goal with 126 – five more than Hershey’s Chris Bourque. Samson has recorded four or more shots in 19 of his 30 games this season, including a season-high nine at Houston on Oct. 30.
• HOME AND AWAY: The Checkers 23 points earned at home this season are the most of any team in the AHL. With a record of 11-4-1 this season, the AHL Checkers have improved to 33-17-5 all-time at Time Warner Cable Arena. However, the Checkers are below the .500 mark on the road with a season record of 6-7-1.
• Dec. 18 – (D) Chris Murray recalled to Charlotte from Florida (ECHL)
• Dec. 17 – (D) Chris Murray reassigned to Florida (ECHL) from Charlotte
• Dec. 14 – (G) Mike Murphy reassigned to Charlotte by Carolina (NHL)
• Dec. 14 – (G) Justin Peters recalled to Carolina (NHL) from Charlotte
• Dec. 13 – (F) Justin Shugg recalled to Charlotte from Florida (ECHL)
• Dec. 17 – (D) Dan Ringwald released from PTO
• Dec. 17 – (D) Kiril Tulupov signed to SPC
• Dec. 17 – (G) Olivier Roy recalled to Oklahoma City from Stockton (ECHL)
• Dec. 16 – (LW) Magnus Paajarvi reassigned to Oklahoma City from Edmonton (NHL)
• Dec. 15 - (RW) Cameron Abney reassigned to Stockton (ECHL) from Oklahoma City
• Dec. 15 – (D) Colten Teubert reassigned to Oklahoma City from Edmonton (NHL)
• Dec. 15 – (C) Ryan Martindale reassigned to Stockton (ECHL) from Oklahoma City