While satisfied with their efforts in their last two losses, the Checkers know that wins are the only thing that will solidify their playoff position. The challenge now is figuring out how to get them.
It seems as though help will not arrive in the form of players returning from injury in time for two games against Texas this weekend. On the contrary, they’ll likely have to dip back into the ECHL ranks to find another defenseman, with Danny Biega, who arrived just in time to give the Checkers’ six blueliners capable of playing Wednesday, ruled out for the time being with an ailment of his own.
That means the Checkers will again have 12 players who began this season in a lower league in their lineup when they face the high-flying Stars, who lead them by three points in the race for the South Division title.
With those games as big as they are, assertions that Wednesday’s effort in a 3-2 loss to Norfolk will eventually get the Checkers more wins than losses will now be put to the test.
“We need to just keep doing what we’re doing,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “We’re not a team that’s going to go end to end to score. Our game right now is to grind it out and get those dirty goals.”
“With the guys that are here now we’re a workmanlike team, and we’re going to have to work to get our chances,” said center Jeremy Welsh, one of only six healthy players in Charlotte who faced the Stars in the teams’ last meeting on Dec. 29.
One of the Checkers’ hopes is that their effort will start to translate into results once players get more accustomed to one another. Though there are a handful of players who began the season with Charlotte and another group that spent time together with its ECHL affiliate in Florida, there are an increasing number of professional tryout signings from various locales brought in to patch holes in the lineup as they surface on what’s become a daily basis.
“There’s almost full turnover on our power play, new lines, new everything,” said Welsh. “It’s had an effect on our chemistry, and I think you saw that in some of our shot and chance totals in the last few games.”
To that point, opponents have out-shot the Checkers in 11 of their last 13 games dating back to Feb. 10, with the team having broken the 30-shot plateau just once in that time frame.
Three of Charlotte’s new players do have something of a history together, as center Casey Pierro-Zabotel has played with current linemates Matt Marquardt (last season with Bakersfield) and David Marshall (two seasons ago with Wheeling) for about a month each on different ECHL teams. That line accounted for Charlotte’s first goal Wednesday, with Pierro-Zabotel setting up Marquardt in the first period.
“It makes for an easy transition,” said Pierro-Zabotel, who now has a pair of assists in 10 career AHL games. “The only two guys I know I get to play with.”
“He’s always in a good position and is a great passer, and I’m more of a shoot-first guy who likes to go to the net,” said Marquardt, who has goals in each of his last two games. “We’ve worked well together.”
Asked if he’d ever fielded a forward line comprised entirely of professional tryout contracts, Daniels seemed to take the development in stride – another twist in a wild season.
“Probably not,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
It remains to be seen whether the team’s new defenseman will be someone the organization already knows (Carolina signees Tommi Kivisto and Joe Sova remain as ECHL options) or another tryout signing brought in for the first time. The club only hopes that he’ll last longer than Biega, who was clearly dazed following a high hit three shifts into his professional debut and is out indefinitely.
Not that the rest of the team doesn’t sympathize with Biega, but Welsh, who also went through the whirlwind of playing in college and then turning pro in a matter of days, may have a better grasp on the situation.
“You don’t know what to expect when you first get out there,” said Welsh. “(Biega) is a good player and I hope it’s nothing serious, because we could use him.”
Due to absences of Biega and Brett Bellemore, the Checkers had just four defensemen at Thursday’s practice. Daniels said afterwards that Bellemore, who completed the game against Norfolk and had no known issues to that point, was day-to-day.
The only other players on the Checkers’ list of 10 total injuries who participated in the skate were forwards A.J. Jenks and Jerome Samson, who both wore yellow non-contact jerseys. Neither is expected to return this weekend.