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Notebook: Checkers Come Home

Charlotte Checkers notebook
Back home at long last, the Checkers will certainly take more of what they were able to accomplish on the road.

A record of 3-2-1 on their six-game road trip doesn’t exactly set the world on fire, but given the circumstances, they’ll take it. Not only was it the longest trip in team history in terms of consecutive days away from home, but it was also their busiest stretch of the entire season with six games in nine days, and never in consecutive locations.

That the team’s least successful period of the entire trip was also the last period of the entire trip – it surrendered a 3-2 lead in the final 20 minutes at San Antonio on Sunday to lose 5-3 – was not a coincidence.

“Everyone goes through it, but that was a really tough week with a lot of travel,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “It caught up to us and we just hit a wall, but even then we were working hard. I thought the trip was real solid.”

“It’s not easy,” said forward Zach Boychuk of the recent travel that included a three-in-three set followed by a three-in-four three days later. “You travel all over the place and sometimes the travel doesn’t make much sense to you, so to come out over .500 is a positive.”

The schedule is never what one would call normal for an AHL team based not particularly close to other AHL teams. The recent road trip and a two-week break following the season’s opening weekend attest to that. However, it does get much more favorable for the Checkers, who will play a staggering 16 of their next 19 games at home starting this Thursday.

If the effort from the road trip carries over to Time Warner Cable Arena, the Checkers should be able to make their most recent home games, a pair of losses to the Iowa Wild on Oct. 19 and 20, a distant memory.

“Our first two games at home weren’t very good, and we’ve got to establish a presence,” said Daniels. “We have to be a tough team to play against at home.”

More news and notes as the team returns to Charlotte:

Sutter Returns

This isn’t the first time Brett Sutter has been sent down by an NHL team, but it’s safe to say this one stings the most.

For the first time since opening the season with the Calgary Flames prior to his trade to the Carolina organization in November of 2010, the 26-year-old had made an NHL team out of training camp. He played 12 of the team’s first 14 games on the fourth line, which, while different from the featured role he filled with the Checkers last season, suited his style of play at the highest level.

Brett Sutter
That made the Hurricanes’ decision to put him on waivers and send him to Charlotte, a process that started on Sunday, harder to swallow.

“Obviously they’re going through a rough time right now and want to make some changes,” said Sutter of the Hurricanes, who were in the midst of a five-game losing streak at the time of his assignment to Charlotte. “You’ve just got to come down here and work your way back up.”

Though you’ll find few people in Carolina, Charlotte or the entire hockey world, for that matter, who are upset that Manny Malhotra got another chance to play in the NHL, it appears to have come at the expense of Sutter.

“When they bring someone in that they view as an upgrade over you, it’s disappointing,” he said.

Other than the obvious roster crunch caused by the addition of Malhotra, who has continued to win faceoffs at an elite rate and even scored the overtime winner to snap the team’s losing skid on Tuesday, Sutter said that he received no feedback whatsoever from Carolina in terms of an evaluation for his performance or a reason why the move was made.

“I think I played pretty well and got better every game,” he said. “I thought my last game was my best game and I was really gaining some confidence with my role. I didn’t have the (offensive) numbers I would have liked, but that’s not my job there either.”

Always a strong defensive presence, producing offensively has come to be one of his jobs in Charlotte. He has a breakout 2012-13 campaign to show for that, in which he ranked second on the team in scoring with 48 points – 19 more than the previous campaign’s career high.

Sutter has been in the team’s top six at this week’s practices, centering a potentially dynamic line with Chris Terry and Aaron Palushaj. His presence there is a virtual necessity with an injury to Brody Sutter and the loss of Malhotra leaving the team short on centers. Nicolas Blanchard played down the middle in the team’s last game, something the 26-year-old said he had not done since junior hockey.

That said, Daniels said that he may not throw Sutter into the fire right off the hop.

“We have to be careful with him early,” said Daniels. “We’ve got to be smart in building him back to getting the kind of minutes he’s going to get here playing in all situations.”

Daniels was also being cautious with the decision to hand Sutter the captaincy, one that he had held for the last two years and has remained open in his absence this season. Citing the disappointment of leaving Carolina, the Checkers’ coach said that he would have discussions with Sutter about his mental state and whether or not he’d be comfortable with the task.

Knowing Sutter, however, odds are that things return to normal in relatively short order.

“You think you’ve won a job in training camp, and a lot of guys have that disappointment early where it might take them a game or two to get back to their best,” said Daniels. “It’s about continuing to work hard, and I know he’ll do that now that he’s back here.”

Rask Racking Up Points

After scoring one goal in the season’s first seven games, rookie center Victor Rask has caught fire of late, finding the back of the net four times in his last three outings. With 10 points (5g, 5a) in 10 games, he’s caught Terry for the team lead and ranks tied for seventh among all AHL first-year players.

Victor Rask
Though the offense has picked up of late, no one seems to have noticed any difference between the way he played to start the season and during his recent surge.

“Not really,” said Rask, a 20-year-old who has centered one of the team’s top scoring lines since training camp. “I’m always trying to play my game. I really have to give a lot of credit to my linemates (Zach Boychuk and Justin Shugg) for making things easy for me.”

“He’s been real solid since day one,” said Daniels.

That Rask has been able to score hasn’t necessarily been a surprise. He even managed to do it as a 19-year-old last season, when he totaled five points (1g, 4a) in a 10-game tryout before returning to his junior team in WHL Calgary last season. There, the 2011 second-round pick and Swedish World Junior veteran scored 41 points (14g, 27a) in 37 regular-season games and 16 more (6g, 10a) in 17 playoff contests.

Most of his goals with the Checkers this season have been on what Boychuk calls a “sneaky wrist shot” that has beat goaltenders in one-on-one situations – the kind that justify excitement about his NHL future.

What has been equally impressive about Rask is the fact that he’s been able to play a reliable two-way game, which is often the last thing to come for players used to lighting the lamp at the junior level. He now has a cumulative plus-11 rating in his 20 games as a pro, including a team-best, plus-4 rating to start this season.

Plus/minus in an imperfect stat, but this particular instance seems to be no accident. Daniels refers to Rask as having a high “hockey IQ” in terms of knowing where to be at the right times.

“You don’t want to get scored on and that’s a huge part of my game,” said Rask. “I still consider myself more of an offensive player, but I’ve been trying to play a two-way game my entire life. Now I’m just trying to take it to the next level.”

“You could tell even last year just with the little things he can do with the puck,” said Boychuk. “He almost has that Pavel Datsyuk style with the way he steals pucks and uses his stick. You can tell he’s a special player, and I’m pretty lucky to be playing with him. Our line is working well where Justin and I bring the speed and he brings the playmaking.”

Roster Notes

With Brett Sutter returning to the fold to give the team a total of 13 healthy forwards, the Checkers reassigned forward Kyle Bonis to ECHL Florida on Sunday. Bonis, a 24-year-old who signed an AHL contract with the Checkers, made his team debut during the loss to San Antonio on Saturday.

Bonis, who scored two points (1g, 1a) in a six-game stint with Norfolk following the conclusion of his collegiate career at Ferris State last season, has seven points (5g, 2a) in seven games with the Everblades.

Should someone suffer an injury in the coming days, Bonis or someone like him could very well be on the way back up. Brody Sutter, who missed the team’s last two games due to injury, missed the team’s first three practices upon returning home. He did make it out following Wednesday’s session for some one-on-one work with Daniels and is officially listed as day-to-day.

There are fewer concerns for defenseman Danny Biega, who was hit in the face with a high stick midway through the road trip and played the remainder with a full cage – the same kind he wore during his four seasons at Harvard. Biega, a rookie who has been paired with All-Star Michal Jordan for much of this season, missed Tuesday’s practice but returned Wednesday.

Should Biega not be able to play for any reason, the team has carried seven blueliners all season. Beau Schmitz, the only one to sit out as a healthy scratch to this point, has ended up playing three games due to earlier injuries suffered by Matt Corrente and Rasmus Rissanen.