1. SPLIT STARTThe Checkers kicked off the 2019-20 season last weekend with a loss on the road in Hartford followed by a win in Springfield. With no preseason games on the docket, the team knew there would be a bit of a feeling-out transition to start the year, but the progress from game one to game two was encouraging.
“It was definitely a learning process but I think it was good,” said head coach Ryan Warsofsky. “I think the message that we had on Sunday morning was that we needed more speed on the puck and we needed to play better defensively, and we took a baby step forward in that process. But we still have a lot to work on.”
Part of that learning process was finding out the team’s identity, especially with so many new faces on the ice.
“I think we’re going to have to be a team that’s really hard to play against, we’re going to have to possess the puck in the offensive zone and make teams defend us for a really long time,” said Warsofsky. “It’s a process getting where we have to be. I thought we had a really good week of practice, a lot of teaching and a lot of skill development. That was a positive.”
2. MISSING GOATThe Checkers will be without a key offensive weapon this weekend (and likely longer), with Julien Gauthier getting recalled by Carolina to replace an injured Jordan Martinook. After a 27-goal showing last season, the third-year pro lit the lamp in each of Charlotte’s first two contests this season, the only player on the team to do so.
Losing a first-line player means that the coaching staff will have to make some personnel decisions ahead of Friday’s puck drop.
“It’s going to be next man up,” said Warosfsky. “We’ll shuffle our lines around a little bit but for me as a coach, to be honest, I like to keep our lines pretty similar and see if we can get these guys some chemistry. We’re not going to jumble things too much but someone’s going to have to step up and fill Goat’s role, he was obviously a force out there.”
Oct. 11BRI @ CHA
Oct. 12BRI @ CHA
Jan. 11CHA @ BRI
Mar. 21CHA @ BRI
3. RAISE ITThe Checkers will be celebrating their 2019 Calder Cup title Friday night as they raise a championship banner into the Bojangles’ Coliseum rafters prior to puck drop. With a special ceremony planned out and a full house anticipated (reminder that doors open at 5:30 and to BE IN YOUR SEATS BY 6:30), the atmosphere should be electric.
“I hope we can feed off the energy in the building, that’s something our team last year did a really good job of,” said Warsofsky. “We’re going to have to wrap our heads around the banner ceremony and everything and remember that there is a hockey game to be played. The message will be to have a really good first five minutes of our type of hockey and then move on to the next five.”
Over their nine seasons in the AHL the Checkers are 4-5-0 in home openers, though they’ve won two of their last three, including a 4-3 shootout win over Hershey last season. Additionally, since 2011 the defending Calder Cup champion is 5-3-0 in the following season’s home opener, including a loss last season for the Toronto Marlies.
4. AGAINST THE SOUND TIGERSThe Checkers and Sound Tigers faced off eight times last season and split the series evenly, with each side winning four of the meetings. The Checkers were able to get the best of their division rival on home ice, however, taking three of the four meetings in Charlotte.
Playing a team so early in the season makes it tought on the coaching staff when it comes to forming a scouting report. The Sound Tigers dropped each of their first two games this season, both on the road, but the Checkers won’t be taking them lightly.
“They’re a team that’s very well coached, they’ll get in your face, they’re going to finish every check and they have a heavy forecheck,” said Warsofsky. “Our guys will need to get back and help out and Ned’s going to be influential in helping us break those pucks out. We have to be ready from the get go, they’re a team that isn’t going to come off the bus slow.”
This weekend will also mark the first time that the Checkers will go head-to-head with a member of their Calder Cup-winning team. Nick Schilkey spent two seasons with Charlotte from 2017-19 and put up 49 points (20g, 29a) in 112 games in a Checkers sweater, including 37 last season and eight more (1g, 7a) over the playoff run.
5. INJURY NOTESThe Checkers have three notable injury questions early on this season, with varying degrees of diagnoses.
Recovering from cancer treatment this summer, Stelio Mattheos has been skating with the team asa full participant and is progressing closer to a return.
“He’s day-to-day,” said Warsofsky. “We could see him this weekend."
Max McCormick, who was injured during NHL training camp, has resumed skating but continues to wear a yellow no-contact jersey.
“I think he’s more of a week to week situation,” said Warsofsky. “I don’t see us seeing him this weekend, but he’s possible for the following weekend. He’s getting there but not close enough.”
After missing almost all of last season due to injury, Spencer Smallman is continuing to climb back to full health.
“We’re not really rushing Smallsy, we’re taking our time,” said Warsofsky. “He is skating and he’s getting in better shape, it’s now just getting that injury back t where it’s 100 percent and he’s ready to go. I would think he’s more week-to-week.”
6.SPECIAL TEAMS SOARIt’s a small sample size, but Charlotte’s special teams have looked strong through the first two games of the season. The Checkers have been on the power play six times thus far and lit the lamp on three of them, while also killing 10 of their own 11 penalties, including a perfect 7-for-7 showing on Sunday against a Springfield team that boasted the league’s best power play last season.
7.NEW GUYS CHIP INPlaying in their first games in a Checkers sweater, Dave Gust, Brian Gibbons, Hunter Shinkaruk and Chase Priskie all recorded a point on Saturday. Add in a goal by Anthony Louis on Sunday and five different skaters notched their first points as a Checker over the weekend.
8. FAMILIAR FACES COME THROUGHAfter missing the back half of last season due to injury, Janne Kuokkanen suited up for his first game since March 2 on Saturday. Having recorded a point in seven of his last nine games last season, the Finn kept the ball rolling by lighting the lamp on Saturday and then adding an assist on Saturday.
Roland McKeown was named the sixth captain in Checkers history last week and then turned in a dominant two games to open the season. The blueliner tallied four assists over the weekend, including a career-high three in Sunday’s win alone.
9. TUNE INYou can tune in to every broadcast this season with a subscription to the league’s streaming platform AHLTV. For this weekend, however, the league is letting you tune in for free!
As always, the radio broadcast will be available via the Checkers app or this link, so tune in and tweet Jason Shaya to let him know you’re listening!
You can also watch tonight's game for free on the AHL's Facebook page!