February 15, 2012 1:21 PM
It’s a designation that can and almost certainly will be topped when everything is said and done, but for now, there’s little question that this weekend is the most important of the Checkers’ season.
In a campaign that has seen a handful of teams take turns posing the biggest threat to Charlotte’s long-held division lead, the Checkers will visit the current top two challengers this weekend. They face Peoria, the Midwest’s third-place team, on Friday before a back-to-back set against second-place Chicago starting Saturday.
Peoria, which currently holds the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, still has to close a seven-point gap on the Checkers. Chicago is much closer, as they trail the Checkers by just four points with two games in hand.
If the Checkers do well this weekend, they’ll make a statement that they won’t be easily overtaken. If they do poorly, the Midwest will suddenly be wide open.
“This is a crucial weekend for us,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “The standings right now are pretty tight, and even though we’re leading our division we might only be a few losses away from slipping out of the playoff picture.”
To appreciate how little margin for error exists at the moment, consider that Friday’s win marked the eighth in a 10-game span for a team that was already leading its division. Even with that kind of success, all it took was back-to-back regulation losses, the Checkers’ first losing streak in nearly two months, to put what could have been a commanding lead in jeopardy with these head-to-head meetings looming.
That puts an even brighter spotlight on some roster uncertainty, with a handful of players questionable to even make the trip, let alone play. That group includes forwards Chris Durno, Riley Nash, Justin Soryal and Brett Sutter, defenseman Chris Murray and goalie Mike Murphy, all of whom was absent or in some way limited from this week’s practices. In addition, a yet-to-be-determined forward will be heading to Raleigh to fill in for the Hurricanes’ Tuomo Ruutu, who is expected to miss three weeks.
Though that may seem to put the Checkers’ backs against the wall, that hasn’t necessarily been such a bad thing in the past. Even this season, they’ve had some of their best efforts while shorthanded and some of their worst at full strength.
“Some guys that might not always get time on the power play or penalty kill want to show that they can fit in those roles,” said defenseman Michal Jordan.
“With a lot of guys out, others tend to step up and play a little tighter with a lot more determination,” said Daniels. “After last week, that’s something we were looking for anyway regardless of who was going to be in the lineup.”
Indeed, Daniels said that he thought effort was the biggest thing missing from the team’s previous three-in-three set, with even the overtime win over Milwaukee not providing much satisfaction due to sloppy play. This time, the team will hope to set a different tone by returning to Peoria still angry from a 5-2 loss that most agree was their worst game of the season.
“It’s good that we’re playing them first this week,” said Jordan.” We just didn’t play a good game there first time.”
“Peoria was ready for a big game and we weren’t,” said Daniels. “We’re definitely focusing on that now.”
Depending on how many players make the trip, the Checkers could be looking to add a player or perhaps even several from the lower ranks. Florida Everblades forwards Matt Beca, Scott Pitt, Cedric McNicoll and Justin Shugg, all of whom have played for Charlotte this season, are available if needed. If Murphy can’t play, the team will look to bring in a goalie on a professional tryout contract for the fourth consecutive weekend.