Since their last game in Abbotsford on Wednesday, the team has added four players – Sean Dolan and Beau Schmitz have returned from brief ECHL stints with the Florida Everblades and Nicolas Blanchard and Jared Staal are now healthy after missing the last several games due to injury. With that putting the roster at 26, the Checkers responded by sending A.J. Jenks and Matthew Pistilli back to Florida by way of releasing them from their pro tryout agreements.
Based on Friday’s morning skate, it appears that Dolan and Blanchard will play their first Checkers games since Dec. 30 and Jan. 17, respectively. Meanwhile, the Checkers are still expected to have four scratches, including healthy extras Staal, Schmitz and Matt Marquardt and under-the-weather defenseman Rasmus Rissanen.
Given the Checkers’ 9 p.m. arrival after a full day of travel on Thursday as compared to the relatively lax schedule of the Oklahoma City Barons, who had a practice day in Charlotte while the home team was still on the west coast, the energy provided by returning players will be a key on Friday.
“That’s my main goal - to bring a lot of energy shift after shift,” said Blanchard, the Checkers’ longtime alternate captain who missed nine games with an upper-body concern. “I’ll try to be physical and intense, drive the net, talk to the boys and try to win the game.”
“It’s definitely a quick turnaround with the time change and getting in late last night, but it is what it is and we’ve got to find a way to get a win tonight,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “We’ll have some fresh legs in tonight and hopefully that can give us a spark.”
Dolan, typically the team’s fourth-line center and a top option on the penalty kill along with Blanchard, scored four points (2g, 2a) in three ECHL games last week, part of what was always going to be a short stay.
“We can’t travel with everybody and both guys were ready to play,” said Daniels of Dolan and Schmitz. “It gave them a chance to keep playing games as opposed to staying back here and skating with one or two guys. This way they got back in game situations.”
Meanwhile, Blanchard had seemingly found a home on an extremely productive second line with Brody Sutter and Aaron Palushaj prior to his injury, with newcomer Greg Nemisz able to keep things going in his absence.
“Blanchard was probably playing his best hockey of his career before he got hurt, just being very composed with the puck, wanting the puck, scoring some goals but also being that hard player to play against,” said Daniels of Blanchard, who he has coached for six seasons. “It showed in practices and games where he had a smile on his face and he was ready to go. He’ll be a good plus for us tonight.”
“It’s probably been my best year,” echoed Blanchard, who scored seven of his 10 points on the season in his last 10 games. “I’ve been more confident with the puck and have grown with experience. I feel pretty good and I’m excited to get back and keep going like I did before the injury.”
Though the Checkers are 6-0-0 against the Barons this season, they aren’t expecting things to come as easily as they did in wins of 4-0 and 9-3 at Time Warner Cable just two weeks ago. Since then, the Checkers went 1-3-0 on their road trip while the Barons, who will remain in town for a rematch on Sunday afternoon, have taken three straight wins over Toronto and Texas – two of the Western Conference’s top teams.
“We’ll see a different team,” said Daniels. “(Mark) Arcobello is back (from the NHL) for them – he’s a catalyst for that team and one of the better players at this level. We’re going to see their A-game.”
“They won both games against Texas and they’ll be ready to play against us,” said Blanchard. “I’ll make sure the boys are ready in the room before the game.”
In terms of his team’s recent play, Daniels was reasonably pleased with its ability to bounce back from Tuesday’s’ 7-1 loss in Abbotsford with a much better showing Wednesday, even if it still resulted in a 4-3 defeat.
“I thought we competed harder and had a real good, strong last two periods and couldn’t find a way to get that last tying goal,” he said. “It was disappointing because Chris Terry had a great chance at the side of the net late in the game in the last 25 seconds but the goalie made a big save. Looking back you’d like to get out of that trip .500, but unfortunately it’s 1-3 and that’s makes these two games crucial.”
Jenks and Pistilli had both previously played for the Checkers under NHL contracts with Carolina but began this season in the ECHL with Florida. Jenks scored five points (2g, 3a) in 24 games with Charlotte, while Pistilli, the ECHL's leading scorer at the time of his signing with the Checkers this season, had eight points (4g, 4a) in 14 outings.