The last week of the regular season will be an awfully long one.
Having played more games than most AHL teams, the Checkers will be off until beginning a back-to-back set that takes them through Milwaukee and Rockford starting Friday. It’s a lot of time to sit around and contemplate what their most recent defeat has done to their playoff chances that, until recently, looked quite promising.
Because of the lull in their schedule, they’ll be spectators for one of the most important days of their season on Wednesday, when the other teams on the Western Conference bubble play their games in hand. In addition to making sure they get as many points as possible this weekend, the Checkers need Rochester and Oklahoma City to drop far more than they earn.
All that contributed to what coach Jeff Daniels called a “quiet focus” at Tuesday’s practice, their first since losing to 2-1 to Grand Rapids two days earlier.
“They understand the situation they’re in and they understand that we need some help, but at the same time the work was there today,” said Daniels of his players. “They’ve been a group that’s worked hard all year for me, and I know with the leadership in that locker room we’ll be ready to go Friday night.”
Like many of their losses in a 1-4-0 start to April that has seen them fall out of the playoff position they earned with a record-setting 12-4-0 month of March, they didn’t play poorly on Sunday. Teams run into hot goaltenders, as the Checkers did with Tom McCollum that day, over the course of the season. With points at a premium due to missteps earlier in the year, the Checkers could scarcely afford for it to happen when it did.
“You can’t sit here and say we wish we could have done this or that,” said Daniels, also citing a 1-0 loss to Oklahoma City exactly one week earlier. “We did everything but score goals.”
As the Checkers sit in ninth place and two points behind the cutoff line, all eyes will be on Wednesday’s scoreboard that features seventh-place Rochester visit Utica, another playoff hopeful, and eighth-place Oklahoma City host high-flying Texas. To make the playoffs, Charlotte needs at least one of those teams, recently reinforced by their NHL affiliates missing the postseason, to slip out of the top eight.
In order to catch Rochester, the Checkers would need to win both of their games and hope that the Americans go pointless in their remaining three. They wouldn’t necessarily have to win both of their games to catch Oklahoma City, but even if they did, the Barons can put themselves out of Charlotte’s reach by earning three points in their final three games, two of which are against Iowa, the conference’s last-place team. Factored into those scenarios is the fact that the Checkers own ROW (regulation/overtime wins) tiebreaker over both teams.
That makes it something of a longshot and also possible that the Checkers could be eliminated before their last game against Rockford on Saturday, even if they win the night before. Conversely, that game could also be a winner-take-all contest between two bubble teams, showing how many possibilities still exist.
“We’re keeping an eye on it, but first of all we have to focus on our game and make sure we win them,” said defenseman Michal Jordan. “There’s still a chance. If we win those two games we’re still in the hunt.”
Until then, there’s nothing to do but practice, wait, watch and hope that they’re lucky enough to have both games matter. Even with so much out of their control at this point, they’re ready to do their part.
“It starts with (Brett Sutter) and those guys that lead by example,” said Daniels. “They could have gone out to practice today and kind of gone through the motions, but they were ready. When your hardest workers are your leaders, that’s a pretty good start.”