With points in 10 of their last 12 games, the Checkers feel they’ve built some momentum to start the new year.
“Even when we were losing (a four-game winless streak from Dec. 28-Jan. 3) I thought we were playing pretty well,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “We were generating a lot of chances and weren’t giving up a whole lot, and we were playing the right way.”
The challenge now will be to keep it going amid what could be a turbulent period caused by the return of the NHL.
With the Checkers set to leave Charlotte early Thursday morning for a set of three road games in three days, the team had still not received word on which players they would be losing to the Carolina Hurricanes’ training camp. The timing also remains up in the air, with the starting dates for NHL camps still unannounced as of Wednesday afternoon.
“There are so many unknowns,” said Daniels.
Regardless of when camps start, with five games in the next eight days, it’s very likely that they’ll cause a disruption in the Checkers’ lineup and the promotion of some players from the ECHL. Due to injuries, the team already has three players – forward Justin Shugg and defensemen Tommi Kivisto and Bobby Raymond – on their roster who started the season with the Florida Everblades.
Whether reinforcements come from Florida or another team via a professional tryout contract, adjustments will have to be made quickly.
“Whoever comes in will have to buy in right away and play the way we want them to play,” said Daniels.
Recognition from Rutherford
In a radio interview with 620 the Buzz in Raleigh
, Hurricanes General Manager Jim Rutherford praised a handful of Checkers players for their play to start this season. Since he’s also been known to be honest with criticism, the kind words shouldn’t be taken lightly as he enters his final evaluation of players that could contribute in the NHL this season.
Of the group he mentioned, perhaps the highest compliment was paid to defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti, who, after injury troubles, enjoyed a stellar calendar year of 2012 that included a breakout second half to last season and a strong start to the current campaign.
“Sanguinetti has been really impressive on defense,” said Rutherford. “He’s come of age now, and I’d be very surprised if he doesn’t stay with the big club.”
“One of the guys was giving me a hard time about that,” said Sanguinetti of Rutherford’s comments. “It’s nice to hear, but you can’t expect anything going in.”
Competition for regular playing time will still be tough, with the Canes returning six defensemen from last season’s team (including Justin Faulk) and top prospect Ryan Murphy also in the mix. Marc-Andre Gragnani, another would-be promotion candidate, is currently injured.
Rutherford also said that Dan Ellis will have a good chance to seize the team’s backup goaltending job, adding that he planned to sign the veteran goalie, still on an AHL tryout contract with the Checkers, to an NHL deal.
One day after the AHL suspended him one game for a boarding incident that occurred in Raleigh on Sunday, Sutter said that he accepted the ruling.
“I’m a little bit surprised, but I respect the league’s decision that it was a borderline hit,” he said. “I have to be careful about making sure my hits are shoulder to shoulder, which is what I was trying to do.”
At the time, officials rules the hit against Norfolk’s Jordan Hendry a boarding major. Given that the play resulted in an injury to the head (though Hendry returned to the game, the immediate presence of blood was considered enough evidence), the game misconduct was automatic per AHL rules.
“It’s a fine line,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “When a guy gets cut from getting hit in the head, even though I don’t think it was a headshot, they’re going to crack down on that.”
The suspension is added punishment for Sutter, who only had a few shifts to showcase himself to Hurricanes management prior to his ejection.
“It was disappointing, because there was a lot of excitement and you’re trying to make an impression,” said Sutter. “I think I have to play that way and be gritty in order to do that, so if I had to do the hit again I’d still finish my check but I’d wait that extra half second.”
On Wednesday, the AHL selected Daniels to the league’s All-Star Classic in Providence later this month. It will be the first career appearance for Daniels, now in his fifth season as an AHL head coach.
“It’s exciting, but it’s a team honor and a recognition of what we do on the ice,” he said.
Daniels earned the honor by way of commissioner’s selection. He joins Toronto’s Dallas Eakins, who had the conference’s best winning percentage through games of Dec. 31, on the Western staff.
The two, just one year apart in age, have actually crossed paths a few different times as players.
“We played against each other in junior – he was in Peterborough and I was in Oshawa – and played some games together in the American League, I think in Springfield (in 1996-97) when it was split into two affiliations and he was in Winnipeg’s system,” said Daniels, a Hurricanes prospect at the time. “It’ll be nice to catch up.”
Daniels called the team’s four injured players – forwards Nicolas Blanchard and Justin Soryal and defensemen Marc-Andre Gragnani and Rasmus Rissanen – long shots to return to the lineup this weekend. Of that group, only Rissanen has been practicing, and only on a limited basis.
Prior to Brett Sutter’s suspension, the team still had enough players to dress a full team on Friday, barring the loss of players to NHL camps in the meantime. Now they’ll be one short, with Daniels saying that he expected to bring in a forward in the near future.
Blanchard and Soryal, the two Checkers most likely to drop the gloves at any particular time, both sustained their injuries as the result of fights. Blanchard left the team’s game in San Antonio on Dec. 30 after a bout with Justin Vaive, while Soryal missed the team’s last game after his second fight of the game and first against Lake Erie’s Patrick Bordeleau on Jan. 4.
“It’s a risk you take, whether it’s fighting or just playing the game,” said Daniels. “They both got caught with a punch and they’re recovering now, but when they come back they’ll play the same way.”
Gragnani has missed the last eight games with a lower-body injury, while Rissanen has missed the last five with an upper-body ailment.
Slow Starts, Strong Finishes
In terms of goal production by period, the Checkers stats to this point show some striking variations.
The team’s 20 first-period goals are among the fewest in the league (only four teams have scored less in that period), while its -7 goal differential is its worst of any period. Meanwhile, its 48 third-period goals are the most by any AHL team in any single period, and its +20 goal differential to finish games is also the best single-period mark in the league.
“As a positive, it’s a sign that we’re getting stronger as the game goes on,” said Daniels.
The Checkers coach added that he didn’t feel his team was necessarily worse in the first periods than it was in the third.
“I’d be really interested to see a stat with scoring chances generated by period, because sometimes it seems like we have the most in the first period and they just don’t go in until the third.”
He used the recent game in Raleigh as an example. Some of the team’s best chances came earlier in the game, with the team scoring just once on 25 shots through two periods. In the third period, they needed just six shots to score two goals.