Oklahoma City, top affiliate of NHL Edmonton, boasts the Oilers’ top three scorers from last season in Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Together with rookie defenseman Justin Schultz, who leads the AHL in scoring, the Barons have at least four sure-fire NHL players at their disposal due to that league's ongoing lockout.
This weekend’s back-to-back games will present a tough challenge for the Checkers, who will look to continue a six-game point streak (5-0-1) that has seen them cement their place atop the AHL standings.
Already one of the league’s top teams, the Checkers are currently enjoying their most successful stretch of the season in terms of wins and losses. They have not lost in regulation since their Nov. 6 home date against the Chicago Wolves, taking 11 of a possible 12 points in six games since. At 12-3-2, they have a one-point lead over Abbotsford for the highest point total in the AHL (26).
They haven’t been dominant throughout their recent point streak, however, with coach Jeff Daniels and his team feeling they were a bit fortunate to escape a three-game Texas road trip with a record of 2-0-1 last weekend. They were looking for more in a midweek trip to Norfolk, which they achieved with a convincing 5-2 victory.
That should have them feeling confident heading into their games against the Barons, which they were already looking forward to earlier in the week.
“I can’t wait,” forward Zac Dalpe, tied for third on the Checkers with 13 points, said on Tuesday. “The guys on that team, you want to see how you go up against them.”
The Checkers will likely use Justin Peters in goal for tonight’s game, with Dan Ellis, who made 37 saves in the team’s last game, starting Sunday. Defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani could return for Charlotte after missing each of the last five games with a lower-body injury.
To the surprise of no one, the Barons’ young NHL players are playing like NHL players. Eberle (21 points in 16 games) and Nugent-Hopkins (19 points in 15 games) rank second and fourth in AHL scoring, respectively. Additionally, Hall, who was late to the party after recovering from offseason surgery, has nine points in eight games.
If that level of production was expected, the speed in which Schultz has acclimated to the pro game following a three-year career at the University of Wisconsin may have come as something of a surprise. One of the NHL’s most sought-after free agents after he declined to sign with the team that drafted him, the Anaheim Ducks, this past offseason, Schultz leads all AHL skaters with 23 points (9g, 14a) in 16 games.
To summarize, that gives the Barons three of the AHL’s top four scorers at even strength, as well as the top three on the league's second-ranked power play that trails only that of the Checkers.
“We’ll have to take away their time and space,” said Daniels. “If you stand around watching those guys, they’ll make you pay.”
Despite that level of firepower, the Barons were not dominant to start the season, as they trail the Checkers by six points in the South Division. However, they have earned points in each of their last five games (4-0-1), including wins in three straight, to improve to 9-5-2.
Though their top guns should all be in the lineup, the Barons will be without a handful of players including Josh Green, Antti Tyvrainen, Tyler Pitlick, Ryan Martindale and Tanner House.
The Checkers have earned at least one point in the standings in each of their last six games (5-0-1). That has them just one game shy of the team record set from Oct.29-Nov. 7, 2010, and one game shy of the longest streaks in the AHL this season (Grand Rapids has an active seven-game streak).
The Checkers, who have just three regulation losses in 17 games this season, have not lost a game since falling 2-1 to Chicago at home on Nov. 6. All three of those losses came by just one goal.
In Drayson Bowman (t-1st, 11 goals) and Zach Boychuk (t-2nd, 10 goals), the Checkers boast two of the league's top five goal scorers. 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 eight goals in 14 games, Terry himself (t-12th AHL) is on pace to break that record.
The Checkers, who lead the AHL with 26 points, are one of two teams (Springfield) to rank in the top five in both offense (2nd - 3.71 goals scored per game) and defense (5th - 2.41 goals allowed per game). That has helped them achieve a goal differential of +22, which is second-best in the AHL behind Springfield's +25.
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 - 26.3 percent) and penalty kill (7th - 86.3 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 goals in each of the second and third periods are the two highest totals of any team in any period. Meanwhile, they have 11 goals in the first period, the only period in which they have a negative goal differential (-1).
Sharing the Wealth
The Checkers are one of two AHL teams (Rochester) that have eight different players that have hit double digits in points (Zach Boychuk, Justin Faulk, Drayson Bowman, Chris Terry, Zac Dalpe, Brett Sutter, Bobby Sanguinetti and Jerome Samson). They are also the only team with three different players that have scored at least eight goals (Bowman, Boychuk, Terry).
Every player who started the season with 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 nine AHL games played since the 2007 Calder Cup Playoffs, Checkers goalie Dan Ellis leads the league in save percentage (.948) and ranks fourth in goals-against average (1.71). He is also tied for fifth 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 5-2-2 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 Nov. 16, 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 26.3 percent success rate on the man advantage (20 goals on 76 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 (t-1st, 5) and Zach Boychuk (t-5th, 4) are among the leaders in goals, Marc-Andre Gragnani, despite missing the last five games, is tied for fourth in assists (7) and Boychuk is tied for fifth in total points (9).
The Checkers have points in each of their last six games (Nov. 8-21; 5-0-1)
Justin Peters has wins in each of his last five games (Oct. 28-Nov. 18)
Bobby Sanguinetti has points in each of his last two games (Nov. 18-21;1g, 2a)
Zach Boychuk has points in each of his last two games (Nov. 18-21; 1g, 1a)
Drayson Bowman has points in each of his last two games (Nov. 18-21; 1g, 1a)
Marc-Andre Gragnani (lower-body, 11/8) – missed five games