The Hershey Bears, divisional opponents of the Checkers (21-13-3) during their first season in Charlotte, are town for back-to-back games beginning tonight at Time Warner Cable Arena. Along with regional rival Norfolk, Hershey (21-8-7) is one of just two Eastern Conference teams that the Checkers meet this season, their first in the West.
Though the two teams will eventually meet four times this season, tonight’s match-up will be the first since Charlotte’s six-game elimination of Hershey in the first round of last season’s playoffs. They met eight times during the 2010-11 regular season, with Charlotte coming out with a record of 4-3-1.
The Checkers could be without as many as seven players for tonight’s game due to a combination of injuries and NHL recalls. Leading goal scorer Jerome Samson is the latest to move up to the Carolina Hurricanes, joining center Brett Sutter and goalie Justin Peters, while Chris Durno, Riley Nash and Justin Shugg are all questionable for tonight due to various ailments.
Defenseman Mathieu Roy, the team’s most-experienced blueliner, will certainly be out for both games against Hershey with an injury that could sideline him through the month of January.
Though he’s been clear about wanting a bounceback effort from his team following what he considered to be disappointing performances in Milwaukee and Chicago last week, coach Jeff Daniels said his team should be able to do so regardless of who plays.
“There are no excuses,” he said “We’ve got enough guys to win games.”
The Checkers have gotten a boost by the return of forwards Drayson Bowman and Zac Dalpe, the latter of whom has 3 goals in his last two games, and defenseman Derek Joslin, who has looked every bit like an NHL player during the first three games of his AHL conditioning stint. Even Sean Dolan, a South Carolina Stingrays center currently on a professional tryout contract with the Checkers, has chipped in an assist in his first two AHL games.
Should none of the injured Checkers be able to make their return, the team will likely need another ECHL forward to join Dolan, as Samson’s recall left them with just 11 healthy skaters up front. Matt Beca, reassigned to the Florida Everblades following Sunday’s loss in Chicago, could make a hasty return.
Update: Nash is out, while Jared Staal is questionable after missing the morning skate. Beca will be recalled from Florida.
1st Eastern Conference
GOALS / GAME
GOALS ALLOWED / GAME
PIM / GAME
Thanks to the league’s most potent offense (an average of 3.81 goals per game), the Bears find themselves atop the East Division and the Eastern Conference heading into tonight’s contest. They’ve earned points four consecutive games, winning all except for an overtime loss to Adirondack in the AHL Outdoor Classic on Jan. 7.
Hershey players dominate the top of various AHL statistical categories, with former Hurricane Keith Aucoin leading the league in points (59), power-play points (30) and shorthanded points (5). Aucoin has 20 points during an active 11-game point streak, the longest in the league. Teammate Graham Mink has the top spot in power-play goals with 11, while Joel Rechlicz, not to be outdone by his more offensive-minded teammates, leads the league with 167 penalty minutes. Rechlicz is suspended for tonight’s game due to an altercation that occurred Saturday against Adirondack.
Just behind that group of league leaders are Chris Bourque, who ranks second in points (54) and shots on goal (155) and third in goals (20). Jacob Mickfliker, one of the Checkers’ top scorers last season, ranks tied for sixth in AHL scoring with 38 points.
Perhaps not surprisingly given the gaudy individual totals, Hershey holds the league’s No. 1 power play at 30.9 percent, a full eight percentage points higher than any other team. They’ve even found offense on the penalty kill, scoring a total of nine shorthanded goals to rank first in the league.
“They’re one of the elite teams in the league year in and year out,” said Daniels. “They have an explosive offense and their power play is clicking over 30 percent last I checked, so we just have to be smart with the puck and not take unnecessary penalties.”
Even if Charlotte (2.73 goals per game) can’t match that kind of offensive firepower, they’re a better match on the defensive side. Hershey ranks 13 spots behind Charlotte’s No. 4 defense with an average of 2.91 goals allowed per game, while neither Braden Holtby nor Dany Sabourin, who each have NHL experience, crack the league’s top 20 in goals-against average or save percentage.
Daniels, who has met Hershey in the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, including one with the Albany River Rats, acknowledged that there could be some holdover from last spring.
“I’m sure there will be, but we’re two different teams,” he said. “We’ve got seven or eight new guys and I’m sure they’re the same. We have played them in the playoffs for the last two years, so there’s some history there.”
• PLAYOFF HISTORY: The Carolina Hurricanes’ AHL affiliate has met Hershey in each of the last two postseasons, with each team splitting one series. In 2010, Hershey swept the Albany River Rats in the second round with three of the four games going to overtime. In 2011, Charlotte defeated Hershey in six games to claim the first playoff series win in franchise history.
Players on the Checkers’ current roster leftover from the 2010 series are Charlotte’s Brett Bellemore, Nicolas Blanchard, Drayson Bowman, Zach Boychuk, Zac Dalpe and Chris Terry. Hershey retains Keith Aucoin, Chris Bourque, Sean Collins, Braden Holtby, Boyd Kane, Zach Miskovic and Patrick Wellar.
• HELP FROM ABOVE: In three games since joining the Checkers from Raleigh on Jan. 4, forward Zac Dalpe and defenseman Derek Joslin have been the team’s two most productive offensive players with 3 points apiece. After being held scoreless in his first game back with Charlotte, Dalpe recorded 3 goals during the team’s two-game road trip, including a 2-goal performance Saturday in Milwaukee. Joslin, in the AHL on a two-week conditioning stint, recorded 3 assists in his first two games, including two in Milwaukee.
• HOME AND AWAY: The Checkers’ 26 points earned at home this season are tied with Hershey and Milwaukee for the most in the AHL. With a record of 12-5-2 this season, the AHL Checkers have improved to 34-18-6 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 9-8-1.
• FIRST GOALS: The Checkers have scored first in just 16 of their 37 games this season, giving it the second-lowest percentage (.432) of any team currently in playoff position (Albany). The Checkers are 12-3-1 when scoring the game’s first goal, and 9-10-2 when they do not. Tonight’s opponent, Hershey, has scored first a league-high 27 times.
• SHORTHANDED GOALS: The Checkers have scored and allowed 5 shorthanded goals apiece this season, giving them a total (10) that ties them for third most in the league behind Hershey (13) and Rochester (11). The Checkers 5 goals scored rank tied for third in the league, while their 5 goals allowed rank tied for fourth.
• Zac Dalpe has goals and points in each of his last two games (3g, 0a)
• Nicolas Blanchard has goals and points in each of his last two games (2g, 0a)
• Jan. 10 - (RW) Jerome Samson recalled to Carolina (NHL) from Charlotte
• Jan. 9 - (RW) Matt Beca reassigned to Florida (ECHL) from Charlotte
• Jan. 7 - (LW) Drayson Bowman reassigned to Charlotte from Carolina (NHL)
• Jan. 6 - (F) Sean Dolan signed to a PTO
• Jan. 5 - (C) Brett Sutter recalled to Carolina (NHL) from Charlotte
• Jan. 4 - (C) Zac Dalpe reassigned to Charlotte from Carolina (NHL)
• Jan. 4 - (D) Derek Joslin assigned to Charlotte on conditioning loan from Carolina (NHL)
• Jan. 10 - (D) Tomas Kundratek recalled to Washington (NHL) from Hershey
• Jan. 9 - (D) Phil Oreskovic recalled to Hershey from South Carolina (ECHL)