On Dec. 6, the Checkers were shut out in Rochester, a loss that pushed them to last place in the division and second-to-last place in the conference.
Then something clicked.
The Checkers defeated the Amerks the following night, but it wasn’t just another one-off bright spot. It was the first step in what would become a remarkable run, one that saw Charlotte rattle off 14 wins in its next 17 games and ascend the standings all the way to third place.
So what sparked such a stunning turnaround?
Plenty of things seem to have factored in – a big one seeming to be a team full of new faces meshing together as a whole.
“Everybody has really bonded and come together and that goes a long way,” said team captain Roland McKeown. “Hockey is a lot more than the Xs and Os. You’ve got to get a feel for the game and your teammates and their instincts out there. I think that’s been huge.”
The Checkers spent a hefty percentage of the first half of the season away from home, traversing through a tough slate of travel throughout the Eastern Conference. But according to head coach Ryan Warsofsky, those treks only helped bolster those bonds.
“I think it helps being on the road,” he said. “You get to know your teammates. It’s just you guys, no family, no wives, no kids. It’s just you and the group and you gel and the chemistry comes and you’re in a routine.”
Getting the pieces to fall into place off the ice is one thing, but there’s also the matter of building the team on the ice, which is always a challenge for a new coaching staff helming a group full of unfamiliar faces. On top of finding matches personnel-wise, the Checkers spent the beginning of the season discovering what exactly they had in their group of skaters. That picture becoming clearer has corresponded with the team’s success.
“I think guys are settling into their roles,” said Warsofsky. “They’re understanding what they are.”
Another aspect of the turnaround is perhaps the simplest.
“I think early in the season some of our best players weren’t being our best players,” said Warsofsky. “We’ve gotten some great growth since then. Guys are just playing better, there’s no magic formula. We’ve tinkered with some things but at the end of the day your best players need to be your best players.
“Dave Gust has been really good. [Steven] Lorentz has put his name back on the map as a prospect, Beaner [Jake Bean] has been playing really great hockey, [Chase] Priskie is getting better. Kuokkanen is way above where he was. That all helps.”
While this turnaround has happened in stunning fashion for the Checkers, it’s simply brought the team back to the level they always believed they could play at.
“We always knew what we had in the locker room and on paper,” said Gust. “We always thought we were a really good team. Even through the start of the year, we just knew it was a matter of time before things started clicking. Now they have and we’ve taken advantage of it.”
It wasn’t some magical flip that got switched for the Checkers. It was a team coming together and elevating its game. And while their rise has been impressive, they’re far from content.
“We’re not where we want to be yet,” said McKeown. “We’re third in our division so there’s a long way to go to get to number one if we want to accomplish that.”
“Has it been a great stretch here? Absolutely, there’s no question about it,” said Warsofsky. “But we still have a lot to work on. We’re still learning as a group, we’re still learning as individuals. We’re not here right now already trying to raise a trophy over our heads. That’s not the purpose of this. The purpose is to focus on one day at a time.”