Many teams would be in trouble if they had to lose their reigning scoring leader for three games. The Checkers seemed to do just fine.
During Chris Terry’s three-game suspension, all the team did was score a total of 14 goals, raising the league’s second-best offense to an average of an even four goals per game. That stretch included a 6-0 win in Peoria, a 5-4 loss in Milwaukee and a 4-1 win over Chicago in the team’s home opener on Sunday.
If that’s what they managed when he was out, his return for Tuesday’s rematch with the Wolves has the potential to make things even more interesting.
“He’s been our leading scorer the last couple of years, but we’re not a team that relies on just one or two lines and I think we’ve shown that so far,” said coach Jeff Daniels of Terry, who had a team-high 34 goals in 2010-11 and a team-high 59 points last season. “He’s another piece of the puzzle.”
That’s not to suggest Terry isn’t important to the team’s success, with Daniels not losing any sleep whatsoever with the prospect of having to fit him back into a successful lineup.
“You find room,” he said.
For Terry, who filled in as the color man on the team’s broadcasts for the last two games, the suspension is the second of his career but the longest in terms of both games and length of time. His two-game ban last year was served in the first two days of a three-in-three weekend, whereas this time around, the schedule put him out of the lineup for a total of 10 days.
“It was tough to miss the home opener, which was actually the only home game I’ve ever missed,” said Terry, who has never missed a game due to injury in four professional seasons. “It was a long time too, because I had to wait the whole time in Milwaukee and then leading up to now.”
Daniels and Terry both seemed to have been a little surprised by the length of the suspension, which was the result of a hit on Grand Rapids defenseman Max Nicastro on the first shift of the game on Oct. 26. Nicastro left the game immediately as a result of the hit, officially deemed an illegal elbow, and has not played since.
“I vaguely saw him hit the ice and I could see that he was hurt, but the puck was still in our zone so I left pretty quick to go to the net,” said Terry. “I think I was just finishing my check and it was my shoulder that got him instead of my elbow, but when you hit a guy there funny things can happen. I thought (the suspension) was pretty severe for just finishing my check.”
“You could tell right away that he was concussed because he had trouble standing up,” said Daniels of Nicastro. “The league really wants to crack down on any kind of headshots right now, and I think you saw that there.”
In addition to the continuation of hot starts by players like Drayson Bowman, Zach Boychuk and Justin Faulk, part of the reason the Checkers were able to fill Terry’s void was the offensive emergence of captain Brett Sutter. Known primarily for his checking and penalty-killing role, Sutter scored five times in Terry’s previous spot alongside Victor Rask and Jerome Samson during the three-game suspension, pulling him past Terry and into third place on the team in goal scoring.
“I think once I got that first one I kind of got back into that shooting mentality because I had been squeezing my stick a little bit,” said Sutter, who has the second-longest active goal streak in the AHL behind Bowman’s incredible eight-game run. “I haven’t really changed anything except maybe going straight to the net instead of trying to find that open ice, and it’s amazing what happens.”
“He’s working hard, and it’s nice to see a guy get rewarded for that,” said Daniels. “As a coach it’s nice, and even on the bench you can fell it when he scores or Blanchard scores or Staal scores. Guys like them normally don’t get a lot of credit for all of the things that they do.”
At least for Monday’s practice, Sutter was back at center between Terry and Samson, with Sean Dolan seeming to take a more limited role. That may or may not be the case tomorrow, but Sutter isn’t worried about making changes on the fly, seeing as how he hasn’t changed much to begin with during his current offensive outburst.
“The best way I can help the team is by just being who I am,” he said.