Charlotte (19-11-3) will be looking to set a new season high by earning a point for the sixth consecutive game. The Checkers have not lost in regulation since the final game of a four-game losing streak that ran from Dec. 5-15 and included a 4-1 loss to the Rampage (15-15-2) on Dec. 11.
Tonight’s match-up will mark the Rampage’s first ever visit to Charlotte. The teams split the first two meetings in San Antonio, with the Checkers taking a 4-1 win on Oct. 29 before suffering a defeat by that same score earlier this month.
The Checkers enter tonight’s game playing arguably their best hockey of the season, rivaling only a five-game winning streak that set a new team record in November. Unlike that earlier run, which saw them pick up a few victories despite not being completely satisfied with their play, they now seem just as pleased with the process as the results.
“The effort is there for 60 minutes, and we’re back to where we need to be,” said coach Jeff Daniels.
Improved special teams play has been a catalyst for the resurgence, with the team scoring at least one power play goal in six of its last seven games (8-28, 28.6 percent), including a three-goal performance against Chicago on Dec. 16 that tied a season high. That’s helped a number of players get out of scoring funks that characterized the team’s losing streak, during which it scored just three goals in four games.
“It was a weird little stretch there,” said Zach Boychuk, who has 6 points (2g, 4a) in his last five games.” It was one of those times where everyone wasn’t scoring, and that doesn’t happen too often. We really worked on our power play, and I really think that’s shown in the last few games.”
“This game is so much about the mental part of it,” said Daniels. “Guys were getting chances that went in last year that weren’t going in now. Guys are looser in practice.”
The penalty kill has been even better, having killed off 21 consecutive power plays over its last six games, both season highs. That included a key five-on-three chance that could have let Chicago back into the game last Saturday and a pair third-period kills that kept the game tied in Rockford one night earlier.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that take pride in that,” said Daniels, whose penalty kill now ranks seventh in the AHL at 84.4 percent. “We have guys that don’t put up a lot of points but make huge contributions there.”
Other than rookie forward Justin Shugg, who is still at least a week away from returning from injury, the Checkers bring a clean bill of health into tonight’s game (Update: Chris Durno will not play in tonight's game. The Checkers have recalled right wing Matt Beca, who has 6 goals in his last five games, from the ECHL Florida Everblades).
11th Western Conference
GOALS / GAME
GOALS ALLOWED / GAME
PIM / GAME
The Checkers’ most recent meeting with San Antonio is best remembered for the play of goalie Jacob Markstrom, who made 44 saves to deny Charlotte’s comeback attempt. He was particularly strong in a third period that saw the Checkers out-shoot his team 16-2, only losing his shutout bid on a power-play goal by Jared Staal with 32 seconds remaining.
Markstrom, a legitimate NHL prospect who holds a 2.75 goals-against average and .909 save percentage for the Rampage this season, is expected to join the parent Florida Panthers for his fourth big-league stint of the season later this week due to an injury to starter Jose Theodore. However, with the Panthers off until Thursday, the 6-foot-6 Markstrom will be available for both games against the Checkers.
The Rampage should also get a boost by the return of forward Evgenii Dadonov, who participated in the NHL All-Star festivities as a YoungStar last season and scored in his first game back on Saturday, from the NHL, although forwards Bill Thomas, Mark Cullen and Michal Repik, the team’s third, fourth and fifth-highest scorers, respectively, remain with the Panthers (Update:Florida has reassigned Cullen to San Antonio).
Though the Rampage was the last team to score a power-play goal against the Checkers courtesy of Bracken Kearns, they still own the league’s worst power-play percentage at 10.8 percent. They now have just 13 power-play goals on the season, with Kearns, the team’s leading scorer with 20 points overall, responsible for five. No other San Antonio player has more than one.
While they remain four points out of the playoff picture in the Western Conference, the Rampage do enter tonight’s match-up having earned points in seven of their last eight games (5-1-2), including a New Year’s Eve victory over the AHL’s No.1 team in Oklahoma City.
• STREAKING: The Checkers current five-game point streak (4-0-1) is tied with Norfolk and Portland for the longest active streak in the AHL and tied for the team’s longest of the season. Since Nov. 20, the Checkers have also experienced a team-record five-game winning streak (Nov. 20-30) and tied a team record with a four-game losing streak (Dec. 5-15).
• SAMSON SHOOTS, SCORES: Charlotte forward Jerome Samson, the AHL’s shots on goal leader once again with 143 in 33 games, has scored four goals in his last five games to reclaim the team lead in that category (14). After briefly losing the league lead in shots to Hershey’s Chris Bourque last week, Samson, who finished with the AHL lead two seasons ago and was again the runaway leader at the time of his NHL recall late last season, posted six shots in back-to-back games last week.
Eight of Samson’s goals this season have come on the power play, tying him for third in the AHL. He is on pace to top his career high of 12 power-play goals set during his rookie season with Albany in 2007-08.
• SANGUINETTI’S HELPFUL RETURN: Since returning from a 10-game absence caused by a broken foot, defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti has five points, all assists, in seven games. Despite playing in just 23 of the Checkers’ first 33 games, he now leads all team blueliners in assists (11). Seven of those helpers have come on the power play, giving him the most on the team behind Chris Terry’s 11. Sanguinetti is just one of just three Charlotte skaters still looking for his first goal of the season.
• HOME AND AWAY: The Checkers 24 points earned at home this season are tied with Milwaukee for second-most in the league behind Manchester’s 25. With a record of 11-4-2 this season, the AHL Checkers have improved to 33-17-6 all-time at Time Warner Cable Arena. The Checkers recently broke the .500 mark on the road for the first time since Dec. 9 and now have a season record of 8-7-1.
• The Checkers have earned points in each of their last five games (4-0-1).
• Jerome Samson has points in each of his last five games (4g, 1a).
• Zach Boychuk has points in three consecutive games (1g, 3a).
• Brett Sutter has points in each of his last two games (1g, 2a)
• Chris Terry has points in each of his last two games (1g, 1a)
• Nicolas Blanchard has points in each of his last two games (1g, 1a)
• Mike Murphy has started six consecutive games in goal (Dec. 15-30; 3-1-1).
• Jan. 3 – (RW) Matt Beca recalled to Charlotte from Florida (ECHL)
• Dec. 30 – (LW) Evgenii Dadonov reassigned to San Antonio from Florida (NHL)
• Dec. 27 – (C) Mark Cullen recalled to Florida (NHL) from San Antonio