The Checkers begin the final leg of their season-opening, nine-game road swing with tonight’s match-up in Grand Rapids.
The game will be the first of yet another three-in-three set for the Checkers, who play in Peoria on Saturday and Sunday. They then head to Milwaukee on Wednesday to conclude the trip before returning to Charlotte to set up for their long-awaited home opener, the latest of any AHL team, on Nov. 4.
The Checkers have never lost to Grand Rapids, having swept the four-game series between the two clubs last season. However, all four games were close, with the Checkers twice winning by one goal and twice winning by two.
A number of things have gone right for the Checkers en route to a franchise-best 3-1-1 start, including contributions from every position. Balanced offense has played a role, with 10 different players scoring at least one goal through five games.
At forward, they’re led by the names one might expect in Zach Boychuk (six points), Zac Dalpe (five points) and Drayson Bowman (four points), all of whom have been consistent producers both at even strength and on the power play in the early going. Chris Terry and Jerome Samson aren’t far behind with three points apiece, while 19-year-old rookie Victor Rask has managed to chip in three of his own.
That being said, the contributions from the new-look defense shouldn’t be overlooked. Justin Faulk (five points), Marc-Andre Gragnani (four) and Bobby Sanguinetti (three) have made everyone’s jobs easier.
“It’s huge,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “You’ve got three guys on the blue line that can really push the pace, and that makes a lot of difference.”
Goaltending has also proven to be a strength, with Dan Ellis (1.92 goals-against average, .949 save percentage) proving to be a solid addition to the team since joining on a tryout contract last month. He and Justin Peters should again split games on this trip, with Peters having played two of the last three, including the team’s most recent game, a 5-4 loss in Rockford, on Sunday.
Despite sweeping the Griffins last season, Daniels, as he is with most teams early in the season, is being cautious due to turnover both expected from year-to-year and unexpected due to the NHL’s ongoing work stoppage.
“They’re a different team from last year, so you can pretty much throw that right out the window,” said Daniels. “What I do know is that they’re always a team that has a lot of skill.”
Returning forwards Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar represent the bulk of that skill up front, having tied for the team scoring lead with 58 points last season. Nyquist, a third-round pick in 2008, was one of the AHL’s top rookies last season, while Tatar, a second-round pick in 2009, has experience playing with the Slovakian national team. Both have seen games with the parent Red Wings in recent years.
That said, the team’s best pro prospect may be on defence in the form of Brendan Smith, one of several highly-regarded players to come from the University of Wisconsin in recent years. The 2007 first-round pick played 14 games with the Red Wings last season, scoring seven points.
A few younger players support those returning veterans, including Landon Ferraro, Riley Sheahan and Tomas Jurco – the team’s top draft choices in 2009, 2010 and 2011, respectively. Veteran defenseman Nathan Paetsch, who has 167 games of NHL experience with Buffalo and Columbus, joined the team on an AHL deal over the summer.
The Griffins are off to a 1-2-1 start this season, having won their most recent game in a shootout. Both of their regulation losses came after surrendering early 2-0 leads. Tom McCollum and Jordan Pearce have each played two games in goal, with McCollum picking up the team’s lone victory over Toronto last Sunday.
The Checkers' 3-1-1 start (seven points) marks the best start in the team's three AHL seasons, eclipsing the 2-2-1 record (five points) the team posted in its first five games last season. The Checkers currently lead the South Division by one point, giving them the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference. League-wide, only five teams have more points than the Checkers, two of which have played an additional game.
Forward Drayson Bowman scored in each of the Checkers' three games last weekend, including twice on Saturday, to give him sole possession of the team lead with four goals on the season. That has him tied for fifth in the AHL and just one off the league lead. Three of Bowman's goals have come on the power play, pulling him into a five-way tie for most in the AHL. Bowman has now scored in three consecutive games four times in his four-year professional career, including a career-high, four-game streak in 2010-11.
Checkers forward Zach Boychuk has scored points in four of the team's five games (3g, 3a) to become the team's early scoring leader. Though he did not find the score sheet in Rockford last Saturday, he took a game-high eight shots on goal that tied his career high set last season. Now in his fourth professional season, Boychuk is one of several players tied for 18th in the AHL in overall scoring.
Faulk's Helping Hand
Despite missing half of Friday's game and all of Saturday's with a muscle strain, sophomore defenseman Justin Faulk leads the Checkers with five assists this season, tying him with Zac Dalpe for second on the team in scoring with five points. Faulk, a member of the NHL's All-Rookie team last season, is tied four fourth in AHL assists, with only one defenseman, Houston's Marco Scandella, registering more (six).
Just Getting Warmed Up
The Checkers have both scored and allowed just one first-period goal this season, both of which are tied for second in the AHL. However, their nine third-period goals scored are the most in the league, while their eight third-period goals allowed tie them for third-most.
The Checkers are now 3-1-1 through the first five games of their franchise-record-tying, nine-game road swing to start the season. Already the only AHL team that has yet to play a home game, they must wait a further nine days before their home opener against Chicago on Sunday, Nov. 4. The Checkers have endured one other nine-game road swing in their history, going 5-4-0 in October and November of last season.
Due to Sunday's loss in Rockford, the Checkers narrowly missed a chance to win all three games of a three-in-three set for the first time ever. Their record for the weekend was 2-1-0, which comes up one point shy of their best finish of 2-0-1 set three times during the 2010-11 season. The Checkers, who play six more three-in-three sets this season, including one this weekend, are 27-20-4 all-time in games that are part of a three-in-three set, with a record of 8-7-2 in Game One, 12-3-2 in Game Two and 7-10-0 in Game Three.
- Drayson Bowman has goals and points in each of his last three games (Oct. 19-21; 4g)
- Zac Dalpe has assists and points in each of his last three games (Oct. 19-21; 1g, 4a)
- Marc-Andre Gragnani has assists and points in each of his last three games (Oct. 19-21; 4a)
- Victor Rask has points in each of his last two games (Oct. 19-21; 1g, 2a)