The Checkers’ marathon road swing to start the season continues when they begin a set of back-to-back games in Peoria tonight.
Charlotte has found a good deal of success despite the grind of its early-season schedule, going 4-1-1 to tie for the AHL’s best record with nine points. Meanwhile, Peoria, the Checkers’ former Midwest Division rival, is 2-2-1 to start its campaign.
In eight all-time meetings between the two clubs, all of which came last season, the Checkers emerged with a record of 6-2-0, including a 6-1 win on April 13 that was crucial for each team’s playoff chances at the time. The teams will again meet eight times this season, with the Rivermen heading to Charlotte for two games in early November.
It didn’t always seem as though it would be the case after a disastrous start in Grand Rapids on Friday, but the Checkers will carry some momentum with them into tonight’s game.
After falling behind 2-0 in the first three minutes and 4-1 early in the second period, the Checkers scored five unanswered goals to rally for a 6-4 win and improve to 5-0-0 all-time against the Griffins. Four of those goals came on the power play, including three in a 1:13 span in the second period, with Chris Terry’s shorthanded, game-winner in the third period completing the special teams explosion.
When everything was said and done, the Checkers had tied a handful of team records, including most power-play goals in a single game (they’ve now scored four on three separate occasions), largest deficit overcome (three goals, last accomplished during the 2011 playoffs) and most points and assists by one player in a single game (defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani with four). They also emerged tied for the league's best power play (33.3 percent), with their penalty kill tied for sixth (88.2 percent).
Five different players scored goals for the Checkers, with Terry, who added an empty-net goal, the only player to score two, giving him three in his last two outings. Drayson Bowman extended his personal-best goal streak to four games, with Jerome Samson, Justin Faulk and Zach Boychuk also chipping in. Eleven different players have now scored at least one goal for the team this season, with Faulk and Gragnani tied for the team points lead with eight apiece.
Veteran goalie Dan Ellis will likely get the start in goal, even after putting in some unplanned work last night. He stopped all 15 shots he faced to earn the win in relief of Justin Peters, who allowed four goals on nine shots. Ellis now ranks fourth in the AHL with a .957 save percentage and is seventh with a goals-against average of 1.46.
Although the Checkers would still narrowly miss the playoffs on the last day of the season, they were responsible for dealing an earlier death blow to Peoria’s chances with a 6-1 rout in the season’s final week.
As it turns out, the Rivermen are still reeling from that loss, which, according to the Peoria Journal Star, “shattered the franchise,” causing local fans to boo the team on Fan Appreciation night.
“It’s the most disappointing game of my coaching career,” said then-coach Jared Bednar, who lost his job after the season. “I’m sure it’s high up there with some of our players, too.”
The Rivermen return a handful of players from that game, including AHL All-Star T.J. Hensick, goalie Jake Allen and forward Adam Cracknell, who twice received game misconducts for high hits against Checkers players late last season, one of which resulted in a concussion to A.J. Jenks. Gone are NHL veterans Jonathan Cheechoo and Patrick O’Sullivan, but they’ve been replaced with top St. Louis prospect Jaden Schwartz (four points in five games).
Though their offense has struggled in the early going, ranking tied for 27th in the AHL in goals per game (2.00) and 28th on the power play (5.3 percent), the Rivermen did explode for four unanswered goals in the third period of their 4-1 win in Chicago on Friday. Allen, who has played in all five of the team's games, made 32 saves in the win.
The Checkers' 4-1-1 start (nine points) marks the best start in the team's three AHL seasons, eclipsing the 3-2-1 record (seven points) the team posted in its first six games last season. The Checkers currently lead the South Division by two points, giving them the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. League-wide, the Checkers are in a four-way tie with Rochester, Abbotsford and Syracuse for most points.
Defensemen Justin Faulk and Marc-Andre Gragnani are tied for the Checkers' scoring lead with eight points apiece, making Charlotte the only AHL team to have two blueliners atop its scoring chart. On Friday in Grand Rapids, Gragnani tied team records for most assists and most points in a single game (four), marking the third time a Checkers player has recorded a four-assist game and eighth time a Checker has recorded a four-point game. Faulk, a member of the NHL's All-Rookie team last season, recorded his second three-point game of the season on Friday, including his first goal of the season, giving him five points (1g, 4a) in two games since returning from an upper-body injury.
Faulk and Gragnani are now tied for seventh in overall AHL scoring, with Gragnani tied for the overall lead with eight assists and holding sole possesion of the league lead in power-play assists and power-play points (seven). They are tied for third in scoring among defensemen, just two off the league lead. Gragnani is the second AHL player to record four assists in a single game this season, joining Hershey's Garett Stafford. He now has four four-point nights in his AHL career, including a career-best, five-assist, five-point game for Portland on Jan. 15, 2011.
Forward Drayson Bowman has scored in each of the Checkers' last four games, including a two-goal performance in Rockford on Oct. 20, to give him sole possession of the team lead with five goals on the season. He is now tied for second in AHL goals, just one behind Abbotsford's Roman Horak. During his streak, which ties his career high from 2010-11, Bowman has scored one power-play goal in each game, giving him sole possession of the league lead with four. His streak is just one game shy of the Checkers record set by Zac Dalpe in November of 2010 and one shy of the longest active streak in the AHL, held by Horak.
On Friday in Grand Rapids, the Checkers came back from a 4-1 deficit to eventually win 6-4, marking the first time they had erased a three-goal deficit since the 2011 playoffs. In that game, the Checkers came back from 3-0 down in the third period of Game 6 to clinch their second-round series with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
The Checkers' four power-play goals in Grand Rapids on Friday tied a franchise best for a single game, which was set twice during the 2010-11 season. They also became the third AHL team to record four power-play goals in a single game this season, joining Oklahoma City and Rochester. Charlotte now ranks tied for first in the AHL with a success rate of 33.3 percent on the man advantage.
Checkers forward Zach Boychuk has scored points in five of the team's six games (4g, 3a). Though he did not find the score sheet in Rockford on Oct. 20, he took a game-high eight shots on goal that tied his career high set last season. Now in his fourth professional season, Boychuk leads all Checkers forwards in scoring.
The Checkers are now 4-1-1 through the first six 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 eight days before their home opener against Chicago on Sunday, Nov. 4. With three games to go, the Checkers are only one point short of tying their point total from their only other nine-game swing, having gone 5-4-0 in October and November of last season.
The Checkers, who play three games in three nights seven times this season, are in the midst of their second such set of the season and second in as many weeks. Including Friday's win in Grand Rapids, they are now 28-20-4 all-time in games that are part of a three-in-three set, with a record of 9-7-2 in Game One, 12-3-2 in Game Two and 7-10-0 in Game Three. During their first three-in-three last week, the team went 2-1-0, which came up one point shy of their best finish of 2-0-1 set three times during the 2010-11 season.
- Drayson Bowman has power-play goals and points in each of his last four games (Oct. 19-26; 5g)
- Marc-Andre Gragnani has assists and points in each of his last four games (Oct. 19-26; 8a)
- Victor Rask has points in each of his last three games (Oct. 19-26; 1g, 3a)
- Zach Boychuk has power-play goals and points in each of his last two games (Oct. 21-26; 2g)
- Jerome Samson has points in each of his last two games (Oct. 21-26; 1g, 1a)
- Chris Terry has goals and points in each of his last two games (Oct. 21-26; 3g)
- Justin Faulk has assists and points in each of his last two games (Oct. 21-26; 1g, 4a)
- Dan Ellis has won each of his last two games (Oct. 20-26) and has earned points in each of his last three (Oct. 14-26; 2-0-1)