Already faced with one of the longest road swings in their three seasons as an AHL franchise, the Checkers have found plenty of ways to make their own history.
Despite being the only team in the league that has yet to play a game at home, Charlotte concluded the season’s third weekend with a record of 6-1-1, giving them sole possession of first place in the AHL. They’ve gotten there with help from individual standouts at every position, including forwards Drayson Bowman and Zach Boychuk, defensemen Justin Faulk and Marc-Andre Gragnani, and goalie Dan Ellis, all of whom lead the league or are close to doing so in various major statistical categories.
Given their October schedule, it’s hard to imagine things turning out much better than this.
"No," said captain Brett Sutter when asked if he could do just that. "We wanted to get off to a good start knowing that there might be an adjustment period with our new system, but we couldn't be happier with the way it's turned out."
“It was very unpredictable going in just because we had the nine games on the road and you didn’t really know what the caliber of the league was going to be like this season,” said coach Jeff Daniels “Our team has gelled right away.”
It’s hard to put a finger on what’s gone right for the Checkers, if only due to a limited amount of fingers. Returning players have stepped up in bids to put disappointing seasons well behind them, and new faces have fit in seamlessly.
“It’s everything,” said Daniels. “Our last two games (4-0 and 6-0 wins in Peoria), it took everyone. Everyone did their job whether it showed up on the stat sheet or not."
"The guys we’ve had are pretty comfortable with one another since some of them have been playing together for as many as four years now," said Sutter, who joined the Checkers midway through the 2010-11 season. "A lot of those guys want to have better years than last year, because to miss the playoffs on the last day of the season is big motivation. When you’re a new guy coming in, it’s easier to fit into a group like that, and all of our new players are good guys."
As Sutter alluded to, the team as a whole seems to be picking up a new way of playing, the same system Kirk Muller introduced to the Carolina Hurricanes last season, without much trouble.
"The more confidence we get with our new system, the better it’s going to be for our confidence as a group," he said. "The up-tempo style we play now really fits the type of players we have with our skilled forwards and our puck-moving defensemen. All three zones are really in your face and higher pressure."
The season’s first eight games have had a little bit of everything, including hard-fought wins that went down to the final shift and dominating performances like their last two against the Rivermen. Even when they came out as flat as they did in Grand Rapids on Friday, falling behind 2-0 in the first three minutes and 4-1 early in the second period, all they did was mount their biggest comeback since the 2011 playoffs, scoring five unanswered goals to win 6-4.
Starting with the first goal of that rally, the Checkers have outscored their opponents 15-0 in the last 159 minutes of play. That makes it tempting to call the rally a turning point, but it could also be that the slow start was the anomaly, not the response.
“You could see the energy on the bench and the belief that we could do it,” said Daniels. “You have to give the team credit because they didn’t give up.”
That momentum continued for the rest of the weekend, with the team winning three times in three nights for the first time in 18 attempts as an AHL franchise. Besides the consistent contributions of the team's top scorers, even checking players like Sutter joined the fun, with the captain scoring his first hat trick in six professional seasons on Sunday.
"Oh man. It’s probably been 10 years," said Sutter when asked to recall his previous three-goal performance. "It was pretty exciting to get a couple of good bounces, and I don’t really know what else to say except that it felt pretty (darn) good."
The challenge now will be for the Checkers to not get too far ahead of themselves, as returning players and staff understand all too well how a strong record can unravel over time. After all, last year’s team started 5-2-1 in its first eight games led the division for most of the season before a steady decline in March and April caused it to miss the playoffs with a loss in its final game.
“All we’ve done so far is get off to a good start,” said Daniels. “We’ve got a lot of season left, and we can’t afford to get too high or too low. Every game we’ve been in has been tough, and right now a good start is all it is. Our message all along has been to prove yourself each night."
Then again, that team never hit a stride quite like this one.
"When you’re winning you’ve got to use that swagger," said Sutter. "You’ve got to go into every game thinking you’re going to win."