The Checkers will finally conclude their longest road swing of the season and the longest in their three AHL seasons with tonight’s match-up in Milwaukee.
The long road has been kind to the Checkers thus far, as their 6-1-1 start has them entering tonight’s game with the most points in the league (13). One of their previous wins came against tonight’s opponent, with Charlotte getting out to a three-goal lead and holding on for a 4-3 over the Admirals on Oct. 19. The teams play each other a total of eight times this season, just as they did in 2011-12 when each team won four games.
Following tonight’s game, the Checkers return home to prepare for their long-awaited home opener, the latest of any AHL team, against Chicago this Sunday.
Already off to the best start in team history prior to last weekend, the Checkers then reeled off three wins in three days for the first time in team history to claim the top spot in the AHL. They did so in convincing fashion, scoring five unanswered goals for a notable rally in Grand Rapids on Friday before shutting out Peoria 4-0 and 6-0 in the following days.
Since allowing the Griffins’ goal that made the score 4-1 early in the second period on Friday, the Checkers have outscored their opposition 15-0 over nearly 159 minutes of total game play.
"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,” said captain Brett Sutter, who scored his first career hat trick, the third in team history, on Sunday.
The Checkers’ challenge now will be finding a balance between knowing the season has just begun and harnessing the confidence earned from their dominant start.
“We’ve got a lot of season left, and we can’t afford to get too high or too low,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “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."
"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."
Should they continue to alternate starts on the current leg of their road swing, reigning AHL Player of the Week Dan Ellis would get the start for Charlotte. Since entering Friday’s game in relief immediately after the Griffins’ first goal, Ellis has posted a personal shutout streak of over 144 minutes, allowing him to take first place in AHL goals-against average (1.07) and save percentage (.967) among goalies that have played more than one game.
Defenseman Justin Faulk, tied for the team lead in scoring with nine points, should return to the lineup after sitting out the final game of last weekend’s three-in-three to rest. Forward Chris Terry will serve the second game of a three-game suspension for elbowing.
The Admirals, who narrowly edged the Checkers for a playoff spot thanks to a 6-1 head-to-head victory on the final day of last season, currently occupy the 15th and final spot in the Western Conference with a record of 2-4-0. Having entered the previous meeting with the Checkers at 1-0-0, they’ve lost three of four games, with their win coming in overtime at Houston on Oct. 21.
Rookie defenseman Mattias Ekholm, who scored a power-play goal with 3:01 remaining in regulation to bring his team within one goal of the Checkers two weeks ago, leads the team in scoring with five points (2g, 3a). Another Swede playing his first season in the AHL, Patrick Cehlin, leads the Admirals with three goals.
Joining those two atop the team’s points chart are returning forwards Taylor Beck (five points) and AHL All-Star Chris Mueller (three). On defense, Jonathan Blum, who has some experience with the parent Nashville Predators, has three assists.
Jeremy Smith continues to be a workhorse in goal, having led the league in minutes played last season. He’s played five of the team’s six games, posting a 2.63 goals-against average and .891 save percentage.
Forward Gabriel Bourque, who led the Predators in playoff goals last season, has not played since his one-goal, one-assist performance against the Checkers earlier this month. Another experienced NHL player, defenseman Ryan Ellis, remains out with a broken wrist.
The Checkers' 6-1-1 start (13 points) marks the best start in the team's three AHL seasons, eclipsing the 5-2-1 record (11 points) the team posted in its first eight games last season. Despite being the only team in the league that has yet to play a home game, the Checkers have at least two more points than any other AHL team and lead the South Division by four points.
Shutting the Door
The Checkers posted 4-0 and 6-0 wins over Peoria on Saturday and Sunday, respectively, marking the first time the Checkers have recorded shutouts in back-to-back games in their three AHL seasons. Additionally, the Checkers are the only AHL team that has had two different goaltenders record a shutout.
On Saturday, Dan Ellis made 27 saves to record his 10th career AHL shutout, giving him a 1.07 goals-against average and .967 save percentage, both of which are tops in the AHL among goaltenders that have played more than one game. Ellis, an NHL veteran who signed a professional tryout contract with the Checkers last month, now has a shutout streak of 144:21 dating back to Marcus Kruger's first-period goal in Rockford on Oct. 20, earning him the AHL' Player of the Week award for the period ending Oct. 28. On Sunday, Justin Peters posted his seventh career AHL shutout with a 19-save performance.
Forward Drayson Bowman has scored in each of the Checkers' last six games, including a two-goal performance in Rockford on Oct. 20, to set a new team record. He is now tied with Abbotsford's Roman Horak for first AHL with seven goals, with his six-game streak the longest posted by any player in the league this season. Bowman recorded a power-play goal in four consecutive games between Oct. 19 and Oct. 26, giving him an AHL-best four power-play goals.
With nine and eight points, respectively, defensemen Justin Faulk and Marc-Andre Gragnani are two of the Checkers' top three scorers. Faulk, a member of the NHL's All-Rookie team last season, recorded an assist on Saturday to give him six points (1g, 5a) in three games since returning from an upper-body injury. On Friday in Grand Rapids, Gragnani tied team records for most assists and most points in a single game (four), marking the third time a Checkers player has recorded a four-assist game and eighth time a Checkers has recorded a four-point game.
Faulk, 20, is now tied for 11th in AHL scoring. He and Gragnani are tied for third in the AHL with eight assists, just one fewer than Houston's Marco Scandella and Rochester's Cody Hodgson. Gragnani is tied for the league lead in power-play points with seven and has sole possession of the league lead with seven power-play assists.
The Checkers' went 2-2 on the power play in Peoria on Sunday, continuing a streak of scoring at least one power-play goal in all eight of their games this season. Charlotte now leads the AHL with a 36.6 percent success rate on the man advantage (15 goals on 41 chances) and boasts some of the league's top individual performers in Drayson Bowman (most goals - 4) and Marc-Andre Gragnani (most assists and tied for most points - 7). In Grand Rapids on Friday, Charlotte's four power-play goals tied a franchise best for a single game, which was set twice during the 2010-11 season. Ten different Checkers have scored at least one power-play goa
Checkers forward Zach Boychuk has scored points in seven of the team's eight games (5g, 4a). Though he did not find the score sheet in Rockford on Oct. 20, he took a game-high eight shots on goal that tied his career high set last season. Now in his fourth professional season, Boychuk, a first-round pick in 2008, leads all Checkers forwards in scoring and is tied for first in the AHL with seven power-play points.
The Checkers are now 6-1-1 through the first eight games of their franchise-record-tying, nine-game road swing to start the season. Already the only AHL team that has yet to play a home game, they must wait a further four days before their home opener against Chicago on Sunday, Nov. 4. With one game to go, the Checkers have already surpassed their point total from their only other nine-game swing, having gone 5-4-0 in October and November of last season.
With three goals in Peoria on Sunday, Brett Sutter recorded the third hat trick in Checkers history, joining Zach Boychuk and Jacob Micflikier as the only other players to accomplish that feat. Prior to Sutter's first career hat trick, which came in his sixth professional season, Boychuk had the team's most recent hat trick against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Jan. 23, 2011.
- Drayson Bowman has goals and points in each of his last six games (Oct. 19-28; 7g, 1a)
- Zach Boychuk has points in each of his last four games (Oct. 21-28; 3g, 1a)
- Victor Rask has points in each of his last four games (Oct. 19-28; 1g, 4a)
- Jerome Samson has points in each of his last four games (Oct. 21-28; 1g, 4a)
- Justin Faulk has assists and points in each of his last three games (Oct. 21-27; 1g, 5a)
- Chris Terry has points in each of his last three games (Oct. 21-27; 3g, 1a)
- Dan Ellis has won each of his last three games (Oct. 20-27) and has earned points in each of his last four (Oct. 14-27; 3-0-1)
- Jeremy Welsh has points in each of his last two games (Oct. 27-28; 2g, 1a)
- Dan Ellis has not allowed a goal in 144:21 of game action, dating back to Marcus Kruger's first-period goal in Rockford on Oct. 20.