Coach Jeff Daniels and the Checkers hoped nothing would change now that they’ve returned home from a highly-successful, nine-game road swing to start the season. It was almost eerie how similar it was.
Drayson Bowman extended his team record goal streak to eight games, scoring leader Justin Faulk chipped in two assists, Zach Boychuk struck again on the power play and Justin Peters picked up his second consecutive win as Charlotte defeated Chicago 4-1 on Sunday afternoon. The Checkers, who were the last AHL team to play in their own building this season, improved to a league-best 7-2-1 overall.
After a scoreless first period, Charlotte, which improved to 2-1-0 all-time in home openers, took control in the second and third, scoring three unanswered goals to beat the Wolves, who return for a rematch on Tuesday.
“We played a really smart game and avoided the turnovers that gave us trouble in the last game,” said Daniels.
“It was weird at first because we haven’t been here and we haven’t even practiced here, but once we settled in we started to roll them over,” said Bowman, who, with nine goals on the season, trails Abbotsford’s Roman Horak for the league lead by one.
After Bowman opened the scoring on a backhand finish of a Bobby Sanguinetti pass from in front, the Checkers’ onslaught began when Boychuk, who entered the game tied for the league lead in power-play points with seven, redirected another pass from Sanguinetti over the left shoulder of Wolves goalie Matt Climie with two minutes left in the second period.
Just 58 seconds later, Checkers captain Brett Sutter scored his fifth goal of the season, all of which have come during an active three-game goal streak, after collecting the rebound of a Jerome Samson shot from the point and shooting it home as he turned towards goal. That made the score 3-1, with Riley Nash then finishing an outstanding centering feed from Faulk early in the third period.
If one senses a common theme there, it was relatively simple finishes on outstanding passes from Faulk and Sanguinetti, two of the team’s elite puck-moving defensemen, that accounted for three of the team’s four goals.
“We’re fortunate to have those guys, and Grags is another one who had to miss the game tonight,” said Daniels, referring to Marc-Andre Gragnani, who was a late scratch due to illness. “If our forwards are open, they’ll find them.”
Faulk’s two-point night was his fifth multi-point outing in just eight games played this season, putting him firmly atop the team’s scoring chart and just two points off the league lead held by Oklahoma City blueliner Justin Schultz. It also extended his point streak to five games (2g, 8a).
All of that despite not necessarily having to play in the AHL, as Faulk, just 20, made the NHL’s All-Rookie Team last season and will surely have a job with the Carolina Hurricanes whenever they’re able to recall him.
“The kid just wants to play,” said Daniels. “He knows that when the lockout is over he’ll have a spot, but he keeps working hard. He knows that when he does go back he’ll need to be in top shape and playing well, because they’re going to rely on him a lot up there. He’s fun to watch.”
“I just wanted to come here and work hard every day,” said Faulk. “This is a good group of guys and it’s been fun to play with a lot of guys closer to my age, even though a lot of them are still quite a bit older than me.”
As for Bowman, he and his teammates can only shake their heads when discussing the forward’s incredible streak that doubles his previous career high and is one short of the longest streak set during all of last season.
“Not really,” said Bowman, when asked if any superstitions may be guiding him through his run. “The guys have been giving me crap about making sure I do things the same way, but I don’t worry about it as much.”
“I’m afraid to talk to him right now,” said Daniels, taking the opposite approach. “You get one or two and all of the sudden your confidence goes up, but he’s always been a goal scorer. He didn’t quite have the pace he might have liked in his first few years pro, but he’s doing it now.”
Behind the Checkers’ win was the play of Peters, who made 27 saves and earned his second assist of the season on Nash’s goal for his second win in as many games. Those two outings, which included a 19-save shutout exactly one week prior to this game, came on the heels of a short stint in Grand Rapids that saw him leave the game after allowing four goals on nine shots.
“Goalies and players are going to have bad games, and Petey has seen the good and the bad,” said Daniels. “He knows that if he has a bad game he’ll get a chance to make up for it.”
“You’re always learning, and the minute you stop learning you need to get out of this business,” said Peters.
The Checkers will spend the rest of the week completing a four-game home stand that will see them host Peoria on Thursday and Friday following Tuesday’s rematch with the Wolves. Despite yet another convincing win, the message will be the same.
“We’re happy with our start but we also know that we’ve got 60-plus left to play,” said Daniels. “We have that mental confidence now, and we should because we’re playing well.”
Either way, it was nice to come home on a high note, playing in front of Checkers fans for the first time since April.
“We had a good turnout, and we wanted to send them home with a win,” said Daniels.
Sutter’s three-game goal streak is his longest in six professional seasons. Since scoring his first goal as part of a hat trick last Sunday, he has risen to third on the team with five total goals … In addition to his goal, Bowman took a game-high seven shots … There have been just 11 combined goals (for and against) in first periods of Checkers games this season. Meanwhile, there have been 24 in second periods and 28 in third periods … Other than Gragnani, forwards Justin Soryal and A.J. Jenks were scratches for Charlotte … Chris Terry served the final game of a three-game suspension for elbowing ... Fans voted Peters the Roll up Your Sleeves Hardest Worker of the Game.
North Carolina Education Lottery Three Stars
1. Justin Peters
2. Bobby Sanguinetti
3. Justin Faulk