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Checkers Looking to Find Offense on Home Ice

Charlotte Checkers faceoff
Home ice hasn’t been entirely kind to the Checkers this season. It’s something they’ll certainly have to correct, and they’ll have plenty of opportunities to do so.

Between Wednesday’s game against Hershey and its final game before Christmas day on Dec. 21, Charlotte will play 14 of its next 17 games at Time Warner Cable Arena. It’s a favorable setup for any team, particularly one that played six road games in nine days not that long ago. However, the team’s home/road split so far – 5-2-1 on the road vs. 0-4-0 at home – hasn’t supported that.

So, what happens on the road that the team hasn’t been able to replicate at home? Other than the obvious – winning – there’s not a whole lot that the team can point to.

“I wouldn’t say that there’s anything more to it than getting a break here and there,” said defenseman Matt Corrente. “The bounces haven’t gone our way, but we can’t make excuses. We have to put together 60 minutes and it’s on all of us to start doing it.”

Aside from a 7-2 loss to Iowa on Oct. 20, it’s not as though the Checkers haven’t been competitive on home ice. The other three losses were by scores of 3-1, 2-1 and 2-1.

“We were happy with some things we saw Saturday, but there were still a few mistakes that are costing us,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “(Our system) has proven that it works in the first part of the season, and it’s just a matter of sticking with it and tightening up a few things.”

Adam Brace
Given the team’s recent scoring struggles – until last week, the team had not scored fewer than two goals in back-to-back games since March of 2012 - a potential change for Wednesday’s game could be the team’s forward lines, not that they haven’t been fluid for much of the season.

At this week’s practices, Adam Brace, whose four points in his last four games to tie Victor Rask for most on the team during that span, moved up from the fourth line to a prime scoring position alongside Elias Lindholm and Zach Boychuk. Rask and Aaron Palushaj could also have a new linemate, with Brendan Woods and Matt Marquardt taking turns on the left side of that group.

If those tweaks held, they would seem to give the team a wider distribution of skill across the lineup while creating the strongest depth at center – Lindholm, Rask, Brett Sutter and Sean Dolan – that the team has had all season. Still, Daniels said that the tinkering was still in the experimental phase.

“When you score two goals in two games it’s about a different look,” he said. “We might see something we like and decide to use that, or we might see something we don’t like and try something else. That’s what practice is about.”

If the lines do stick, it’s an excellent opportunity for someone like Brace, who had sat out six of the team’s first eight games as a healthy extra, only getting regular ice time since an injury to Brody Sutter. A high scorer in college and in a late-season pro debut with the ECHL’s Florida Everblades last spring, Brace, 25, could be on the road to being able to contribute in a similar fashion at the AHL level.

“Obviously I’m becoming more comfortable and the coaches have started to trust me more in different situations,” said Brace, who has seen some time running the point on the power play since Chris Terry joined the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes last week. “Things are going pretty good for me right now.

“As a rookie you’ve got to earn your time – they’re not just going to put you out there. It’s about taking advantage of opportunities when they come. I’m used to playing (on a scoring line) and I like to be relied upon in offensive situations.”

The key now will be whether or not he can maintain a high level of play – a constant challenge for first-year players.

“He’s got to be more consistent and play with speed, which is one of his strengths,” said Daniels, who signed Brace to an AHL contract over the summer. “He’s capable of making plays but then might have an off night the next game, so it’s a matter of bringing it every night.”

That challenge will also be given to a much younger rookie – Lindholm – for as long as he’s with the Checkers. The fifth overall pick in last summer’s NHL draft did not record a point in either game against Chicago, though he was obviously not alone in that regard.

“He was a little better and had the puck a little more, and he’s just got to keep pushing himself,” said Daniels, comparing the 18-year-old’s AHL debut on Thursday with his second game on Saturday. “It’s a tough league and it’s not going to come easy for him, but he’s a character kid and I expect for him to get better every day.”

Aside from moving players around that were already in the lineup, there aren’t likely to be any significant changes prior to Wednesday’s game. With Wednesday’s game the start of a three-in-four that will take the team to Toronto on Saturday, Daniels said that John Muse and Rick DiPietro will split the Hershey games. A start for DiPietro would be his first since Nov. 2, with Daniels giving both Chicago games to Muse based on merit.

After skating his own last week, Brody Sutter practiced with the Checkers for each of the last two days but had not yet been cleared for contact, making it unlikely that he plays Wednesday.