March 15, 2012 11:47 AM
It’s hard to imagine that the Checkers’ upcoming schedule could be much tougher, but what else is new?
On Friday, all they have to do is stop the Norfolk Admirals from getting their 17th straight win, which would tie the longest in-season streak in AHL history, before facing them again on Sunday. Just two days later, Peoria, who took a one-point division lead over the idle Checkers on Wednesday, comes to town for back-to-back games. Then, it’s off to Hershey to face the perennial powerhouse Bears.
That continues a stretch in which they’ve already had to fend off another divisional challenger in Chicago and the Western Conference’s top seed in Oklahoma City. Even the Lake Erie Monsters, a playoff bubble team that kicked off the Checkers’ March schedule, were playing their best hockey of the season at the time and are now firmly in the race.
“We haven’t played an easy game all year,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “The standings right now show the parity.”
Through games of Wednesday, just three points separated the No. 3 team (Peoria with 73 points) and the No. 9 team (Abbotsford with 70 points) in the West, with Charlotte ranking fourth with 72. The good news is that the Checkers have played fewer games than every one of those teams, including four fewer than Peoria.
Still, they won’t have an easy road as they look to solidify their playoff position in the season’s final 16 games.
“We’re going to have our hands full,” said Daniels.
As always, the Checkers will face some uncertainty about their lineup but could potentially get some help in time for Friday’s game. Carolina coach Kirk Muller said Thursday that Jiri Tlusty and Jaroslav Spacek could play as soon as this weekend, which, barring any further injuries, would likely mean the returns of forward Jerome Samson and defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti, easily two of the Checkers’ most impactful players at their respective positions.
Charlotte rookie defenseman Rasmus Rissanen could also make a return from injury, but if he’s not able to and Sanguinetti stays in Raleigh, Daniels will need to turn to Plan B in the form of a recall from ECHL Florida or another tryout signing to join Brandon Gentile on a depleted blue line that has seen just two players - Brett Bellemore and Michal Jordan - play every game thus far.
“It’s been a blow to us,” said Daniels of lineup issues on defense, which also include an injury to Justin Krueger that will likely keep him out for another week or two. “Fortunately the guys that have been out there have been doing a good job, like Gentile coming in on a tryout and (Joe) Sova getting more minutes.”
Whoever ends up on the blue line will face a tough test against the next three opponents, who just so happen to account for three of the league’s top eight offenses. Norfolk is No. 1 with an average of 3.59 goals per game – a stat that rises to an even 4.00 during their current streak.
“They’re a team we know well,” said Daniels, whose team is 3-2-1 in six previous meetings this season. “It seems like all of our games with them have been the same kind of up-and-down, one-goal game. I already had a lot of respect for them and the way they play as a team, and right now they’re really firing on all cylinders.”
Though a challenge for sure, it’s not one the Checkers are expected to shy away from.
“If anything I’m glad they won (Wednesday) to keep the streak going because it gives us a little more motivation, not that that we should need it,” said Daniels.