Having to play 10 consecutive games on the road, a franchise record, wasn’t exactly what the doctor ordered for a team needing to win roughly 75 percent of its remaining games to have a shot at making the playoffs. Despite the challenges of that stretch, which included a three-in-three set, four games against the Western Conference’s top team and six more against other teams fighting for their playoff lives, the Checkers have gone from a team hoping to get back into contention to a team now firmly on the bubble.
“It was a long trip and tough games in tough buildings to play in, but we were able to get some wins and get some days off so it wasn’t all work, work, work,” said coach Jeff Daniels, whose team finished the segment at 6-3-1, including wins in six of the last seven. “We wanted to give ourselves a chance, and we did that coming off the road trip.”
“It was obviously a tough stretch on the road, but we were dealt those cards and I thought we did a great job,” said defenseman Mark Flood. “I think we’ve made some progression and played the way we needed to to win.”
After earning points in nine of their last 12 games (8-3-1) dating back to a comeback win over Abbotsford at Raleigh’s PNC Arena on Feb. 16, the Checkers are 10th in the Western Conference with 16 games remaining. They’re just three points behind eight-seed Milwaukee and nine-seed Oklahoma City and five points behind seventh-place Rockford, with the latter gap perhaps smaller than it appears with the IceHogs leading the conference with 62 games played, two more than the Checkers.
For a team still on the outside of the playoff picture, even though they have to make up less ground than the eight-point deficit they faced one month ago, the schedule also gives the Checkers more control of their own destiny than one might expect. They have one game remaining in their season series with Milwaukee and Rockford and four more against Oklahoma City. Of their 10 games beyond that, seven are against teams behind them in the Western Conference, including two against Lake Erie this weekend.
Yes, the Checkers will still need other teams to lose games, but they’re in a position to cause those losses themselves.
“Based on that you still have a chance to get in the top eight, and that this time of year that’s all we can ask for,” said Daniels.
What’s allowed the Checkers to be successful of late? A big part of it is that the team’s best players have been its best players, something that Daniels did not believe was the case at the time of an intervention of sorts that took place in November. Over a seven-game stretch that has seen the Checkers average 3.57 goals per game – an impressive number, especially since it includes a shutout loss – Zach Boychuk (5g, 4a), Aaron Palushaj (2g, 7a), Brett Sutter (3g, 3a) and Chris Terry (3g, 4a) have all been producing at a high level.
“They’re leading the way,” said Daniels. “Chris, Palush and Chucky are our big factors up front offensively, Suttsy been a great leader and has chipped in some points like those two big goals in San Antonio. On the back end, Michal (Jordan) and Biegs (Danny Biega) are leading us there. Right now everyone is playing well and feeling good, and when you’re winning games it changes the mood."
Just as important, and perhaps more so, has been the goaltending that the team has received since Justin Peters returned to Carolina following a successful conditioning stint in Charlotte. Even before sitting out for two weeks, neither Mike Murphy nor John Muse had been at their absolute best but have turned in good performances since. Muse won all three of his starts since returning from injury, including a career-high, 43-save effort at Texas on Wednesday, while Murphy did his best to hold the fort in Saturday’s 3-0 loss to those same Stars.
“It was huge,” said Daniels. “Muser was hurt but he came back and stepped up, I thought Murph played his best game in a while in Texas with all the offense they have and he definitely gave us a chance to win. It was good to know that both guys are feeling good about their games.”
The Checkers’ challenge now will be finding ways to continue that momentum and not feel as though the hard part is behind them.
“We don’t want to get too high or too low,” said Flood. “It’s times like this that the coaches and the leaders on the team have to make sure the room stays even keel and we’re ready to play.”
Even prior to playing those 10 straight games on the road, there had been sentiments that the team wasn’t as comfortable on home ice, perhaps trying to do too much rather than play the grittier road game that brought the better results. Charlotte is now 16-12-2 in away games vs. 14-15-1 at home, though they’ve certainly improved from losing their first six at Time Warner Cable Arena to start the season.
“We talked about it right after the game,” said Daniel of Wednesday’s 3-1 win in Texas. “We can’t relax and think it’s going to be easy now that we’re at home. We have to prepare the same way, be hard to play against, manage the puck and do all those little things that we’re doing right now, which is a big reason why we’re winning.”
As they prepare to play their first home game since Feb. 18 on Friday, the first of a back-to-back set against Lake Erie, the Checkers will be without the services of forwards Greg Nemisz and Brendan Woods. Woods is expected to miss a few more weeks – a timeline that seems to be best-case scenario for Nemisz, who is still struggling with an injury that first sidelined him on Feb. 9 and could potentially miss the remainder of the season.
“He tried to battle through it and it just didn’t seem like it was getting better,” said Daniels of Nemisz, who missed eight games, played three and then missed three. “We’ll have him looked at today and should know some time this week what our next step is with him.”