The Checkers play their final road game for nearly a month as they visit their regional rivals, the Norfolk Admirals, for the first time tonight.
The game will resume the competition for the GEICO Challenge Cup, which is awarded to the team that takes the most points from the eight-game season series between the two clubs. In the inaugural challenge last season, Norfolk took home the cup with a head-to-head record of 5-3-1 against the Checkers.
Following tonight’s game, the Checkers, who have earned at least one point in the standings over their last five games (4-0-1) to help them reclaim first place in the AHL, begin a season-long, 10-game home stand starting with two games against the Oklahoma City Barons this weekend.
Though they took five of a possible six points from their three-games-in-three-nights trip through Texas last weekend, the Checkers know they were somewhat fortunate to do so. All three games were decided by one goal, including two shootout decisions.
“They weren’t pretty,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “You’re always happy to get the points, but we didn’t play for a full 60 minutes in any of the games.”
While the Checkers got away with not giving their best efforts, Daniels feels his team understands that it will need to improve in order to maintain its stellar start to the season in terms of wins and losses.
“J.D. called our game (on Friday) one of the ugliest he’s seen systems-wise,” said forward Zac Dalpe, who Daniels called one of the team’s best forwards over the weekend with two goals and an assist. “To get five out of six was really good, but we can be better.”
Tonight’s game is actually a separate trip from last weekend’s, as the Checkers returned to Charlotte for roughly 24 hours before hopping on a bus to Norfolk following Tuesday’s practice. If Daniels continues to alternate between his two goaltenders, Dan Ellis, who ranks third in AHL goals-against average (1.67) and save percentage (.947) would get the start tonight.
Defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani, who has missed the last four games due to a lower-body injury, could potentially make his return to the lineup tonight. Fellow blueliner Justin Faulk, tied for the team’s scoring lead with 15 points in 13 games played, will return after sitting out the final game of the three-in-three set on Sunday.
They play in the same city and wear the same colors, but these Admirals are completely different than the ones that captured the Calder Cup last season.
A switch in NHL affiliations has resulted in an entirely new group of players and staff, with last year’s Tampa Bay Lightning prospects, who rattled off a professional-hockey record, 28-game winning streak to finish the regular season, now playing in Syracuse. Last year’s Syracuse team, made up of Anaheim Ducks prospects, now calls Norfolk home.
That said, the Checkers do have some familiarity with the new-look Admirals, having split their only two preseason games in Norfolk back in October.
“We’ve got some video,” said Daniels. “They’re a big, hard-working team that can score.”
“I feel like the team that plays in Norfolk is always going to be a good team,” said Dalpe. “It’s a tough rink and it’s a blue-collar city where everyone works hard.”
The Admirals are off to a .500 start to the season at 7-7-0, including losses in five of their last six games. They most recently lost back-to-back games against the high-flying Springfield Falcons over the weekend, capping a stretch that has erased four straight wins to start the season.
Two 2009 first-round draft picks, Peter Holland and Kyle Palmieri, are tied for the team scoring lead with 14 points in 14 games. Palmieri was a first-team AHL All Star last season with 33 goals in 51 games for Syracuse. Those two are joined up front by top Anaheim prospects Emerson Etem – a first-round pick off to a slow start with three goals and no assists in 14 games – and Devante Smith-Pelly, who played 49 games with Anaheim last season. Former Carolina Hurricane Troy Bodie leads the team with 41 penalty minutes.
On defense, rookie Sami Vatanen (11 points in 13 games) is joined by Hampus Lindholm, a first-round pick in the most recent NHL draft, and 29-year-old veteran Nate Geuenin, who each have five points. Frederik Andersen, a former Hurricanes prospect who re-entered the draft after not signing with the team this summer, has started nine games in goal with a 2.76 goals-against average and .915 save percentage.
With 10 goals each, Drayson Bowman and Zach Boychuk are in a four-way tie for most in the AHL. Bowman got there by way of a team-record, eight-game goal streak that ended on Nov. 6, while Boychuk has found the back of the net in nine of the team's 16 games. Both players are on pace to break their personal bests of 17 (Bowman) and 22 goals (Boychuk) at the AHL level, as well as Chris Terry's team record of 34 goals set two seasons ago. With seven goals in 13 games, Terry himself is on pace to break that record.
The Checkers, who lead the AHL with 24 points, are the only team in the league to rank in the top five in both offense (3rd - 3.63 goals scored per game) and defense (5th - 2.44 goals allowed per game). That has helped them achieve a goal differential of +19, which is second-best in the AHL behind Springfield's +26.
On special teams, the Checkers, along with Springfield, are one of two teams to rank in the top 10 in both the power play (1st - 26.4 percent) and penalty kill (t-8th - 85.9 percent).
The Checkers are a perfect 5-0-0 when trailing after the first period, making them one of only two teams (Springfield; 1-0-0) to record the maximum amount of points in that scenario. When trailing after two periods, they're 3-1-0 on the season.
Charlotte's 25 third-period goals are the most by any team in any period, while their 23 second-period goals are tied for the second-highest mark in the league. Meanwhile, their eight first-period goals are tied for the fourth-lowest total of any team in any period.
Sharing the Wealth
The Checkers are one of three AHL teams (Rochester, Syracuse) that have seven different players that have hit double digits in points (Zach Boychuk, Justin Faulk, Zac Dalpe, Drayson Bowman, Brett Sutter, Chris Terry and Jerome Samson). They are also one of just three teams (Houston, Portland) with five different players that have scored at least five goals (Boychuk, Dalpe, Bowman, Sutter, Terry).
With the exception of Tommi Kivisto and Justin Soryal, who have played just three games combined, every player who has suited up for the Checkers in 2012-13, including goalies Dan Ellis and Justin Peters, has recorded at least one point.
Ellis Shuts the Door
In his first eight AHL games played since the 2007 Calder Cup Playoffs, Checkers goalie Dan Ellis ranks third in the league in both goals-against average (1.67) and save percentage (.947). He is also tied for fourth with two shutouts, including the second time a Checkers goalie has recorded a loss in the shootout despite stopping all shots that came his way in regulation and overtime (John Muse at Chicago, Feb. 18, 2012).
Despite his superior statisics, Ellis, who has a record of 4-2-2 this season, has been in goal for four of the five games in which the Checkers did not record a victory. Meanwhile, partner Justin Peters, who has a 2.85 goals-against average and .904 save percentage, is 7-1-1 with wins in each of his last five starts.
Peters Joins the Offense
Goalie Justin Peters earned his third assist of the season on Friday, the most he's earned during any of his six professional seasons. Peters now has more helpers than a handful of his teammates, including Drayson Bowman, Jeremy Welsh and Tim Wallace, who all see time on the power play. Peters, who has won each of his last five starts to improve to 7-1-1 on the season, has now tied the Checkers' single-season record for assists by a goalie set by Mike Murphy in 2010-11. Peters, who once scored a playoff goal in junior hockey, now has eight career assists at the AHL level.
Charlotte leads the AHL with a 26.4 percent success rate on the man advantage (19 goals on 72 chances). Though the team has had several contributors (11 different Checkers have scored at least one power- play goal) it also features some of the league's top individual performers on the man advantage. Drayson Bowman and Zach Boychuk are tied for third in goals (4), Marc-Andre Gragnani is tied for fourth in assists (7) and Boychuk is tied for fourth in total points (9).
- Justin Peters has wins in each of his last five games (Oct. 28-Nov. 18)
- The Checkers have points in each of their last five games (Nov. 8-18; 4-0-1)
- Marc-Andre Gragnani (lower-body, 11/8) – missed four games