March 27, 2012 1:25 PM
As the Checkers continue their push for the playoffs in a wide-open Western Conference, there’s a chance they may have to do it without yet another one of their veteran forwards.
Nicolas Blanchard, one of the team’s two alternate captains, is out indefinitely after a hard hit along the boards from Hershey’s Tomas Kundratek on Saturday caused him to make an early exit from the game. Blanchard, who was previously the only Checkers forward to play in all of the team’s games, missed Sunday’s rematch with the Bears and was not on the ice as it returned to practice Tuesday.
Other than to say that Blanchard would be out “a while,” Daniels did not have a specific timeline on his return. He also could not rule out the possibility of Blanchard missing the regular season’s final 10 games – a crucial stretch for a team near the playoff bubble.
“Blanch is a heart and soul type of guy and it’s a big loss for us even though you don’t always see him on the score sheet,” said Daniels. “He’s a guy that pushes himself to be better every single day.”
At 24 years of age and in his fifth professional season, Blanchard is one of the most experienced players on the team, not to mention a key part of a penalty kill that ranks second in the league at 85.2 percent. Now in his second season as an alternate captain, he was the one that initiated the team’s closed-door, players-only meeting last week that contributed to the following night’s 6-2 victory over Peoria. To underline the importance of that win, consider that Peoria is now one of three teams the Checkers are tied with for sixth place in the West.
In the areas of leadership and toughness – with 101, Blanchard ranked second on the team in penalty minutes behind Justin Soryal, who suffered a season-ending knee injury just two weeks earlier – Daniels hopes that his roster has enough of both to compensate for the loss.
“We’ve got plenty of leadership and a lot of character players,” said Daniels, who cited no fewer than five players who he considers important leaders despite the fact that they do not fill official captaincy roles. “This time of year there isn’t a lot of fighting, so that part isn’t a concern for us.”
In terms of actually filling Blanchard’s spot in the lineup, the Checkers have a ready replacement in 20-year-old rookie Justin Shugg. Because the team did not name him to its Clear Day roster, Shugg is only able to play in emergency situations such as the one cause by Blanchard’s injury. As such, he had sat out the previous five games.
“I didn’t understand it at first, and to be quite honest, I still don’t understand it much,” said Shugg of the AHL’s Clear Day rule. “When I got the opportunity, I just tried to make the most of it.”
It’s fair to say that he did just that, scoring the team’s first goal followed by a highlight-reel tally in the shootout as the team capped its two-game trip to Hershey with a 3-2 loss.
“I think having those extra skates after practice, the two and half weeks to catch up and the playoff atmosphere in that game really helped me,” said Shugg.
“It’s a credit to him,” said Daniels. “He prepared himself for when he got the chance, and he looked like he had been out there the whole time.”
Though easily its youngest and least experienced member – injuries have limited him to just 25 AHL games this season – Shugg has the potential to be one of the more dynamic scorers on a team that Daniels said has played well but has also “come up short in the goal-scoring department.” After initially taking some time to find his feet at the professional level, Shugg, who averaged 40 goals in his last two seasons of junior hockey, has 10 points (5g, 5a) in his last 15 outings for the Checkers.
That being said, a healthy Blanchard or the return of Drayson Bowman from the NHL is all it would take for Shugg to be bumped from the lineup, no matter how well he might be playing. That scenario could be a frustrating one, but it’s a problem that comes with having a deep roster. It also echoes what coaches told him after making the tough decision to omit him from the Clear Day list.
“It’s a technicality and there’s no way around it,” said Shugg.