This weekend’s games will mark an early conclusion to the season series between Charlotte and Rockford, with the teams having already split two games in Rockford. On Oct. 20, Dan Ellis made 35 saves in a 2-1 victory before the IceHogs handed the Checkers their first regulation loss of the season by a 5-4 score the very next night.
Dating back to last season when both teams were members of the Midwest Division, the Checkers are 7-2-1 all-time against Rockford, including a 2-1-1 mark at Time Warner Cable Arena.
Thanks to two straight defeats at the hands of the high-flying Oklahoma City Barons last weekend, the Checkers enter Game 3 of their home stand still looking for their first victory. After a six-game point streak (5-0-1) that was one game short from tying the longest in team history, the back-to-back defeats now have them looking to break their only losing streak of 2012-13.
Despite coming up well short in their last game, a 7-2 defeat on Sunday, coach Jeff Daniels and the Checkers believe they’ll have no problem coming up with the proper effort tonight.
“The guys understand that we’re a good team and we’ve proven that over the last few months,” said Daniels, whose team is now 12-5-2 on the season. “You can’t let one bad game affect you.”
“We’re not worrying about it too much,” said defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti. “We know we’re a good hockey team, and we’re using this week to work hard and try to get back on track.”
The Checkers have a good chance of having Marc-Andre Gragnani, the AHL’s defenseman of the year two seasons ago, back in their lineup tonight. Gragnani, who has nine points, all assists, in 11 games this season, has been out since suffering a lower-body injury against Peoria on Nov. 8.
With Gragnani in the lineup, the Checkers’ power play has converted at 16.1 percent of its opportunities. With him, it’s clicked at 29.6 percent.
“He thinks the game at a high level and sees a lot of different options on the ice,” said Daniels of Gragnani. “He’s an incredible passer, whether it’s on the power play or breaking it out of our zone. It’s always hard and it’s always on the tape.”
Though the team’s rotation may be somewhat out of sync due to Dan Ellis’ early exit from Sunday’s game, it would be Justin Peters’ turn to start in goal tonight. One of Justin Soryal or Jared Staal is likely to be a healthy scratch at forward.
Though the IceHogs are just slightly over .500 at 10-9-1, they enter tonight’s game having won four of their last five, including a 4-2 triumph against Chicago on Wednesday. That continued a streaky start to the season, which began with four winless games out of the gate followed by a four-game win streak.
Despite the lack of consistent results, the Checkers know that they’re always in for a tough game against Rockford. Including the two previous match-ups this season, eight of the 10 meetings between the two teams have been decided by just one goal, including four shootout finishes.
“They’re a team that always plays us hard,” said Daniels.
Like the Checkers, the IceHogs have a handful of forwards that have accumulated stints of NHL experience over the last few seasons but had yet to graduate full-time prior to the lockout. That group includes captain and scoring leader Martin St. Pierre (16 points), Jimmy Hayes (13), Ben Smith (13), Jeremy Morin (12) and Andrew Shaw (nine).
Of that group, Shaw, who had a successful stint with the Blackhawks last season (23 points in 37 games), had been most productive of late, scoring goals in four consecutive games (4g, 1a). However, he'll miss tonight's game due to his second suspension of the season, the first of which was a six-game ban for leaving the bench to participate in an alteraction. This suspension, a one-game ban for boarding, will allow him to play on Sunday.
The IceHogs' established group of top players is joined this season by forward Marcus Kruger and defenseman Nick Leddy, who each spent all of last season with the Blackhawks, and top rookie Brandon Saad, who has eight points in his last 10 games since returning from injury.
In goal, Carter Hutton, who has seen the bulk of the workload this season, made 35 saves to record the win on Wednesday. Prior to that, backup Alec Richards had appeared in four consecutive games, going 3-0-1.
A Rare Slide
The back-to-back losses to Oklahoma City over the weekend marked the first time the Checkers have lost consecutive games this season. Prior to falling by scores of 4-2 and 7-2, they had also not lost by more than one goal. The 7-2 defeat was the team's most lopsided since a 6-1 loss to Milwaukee on April 15, while the seven goals allowed were the most since an 8-2 loss to Abbotsford on April 8.
Home at Last
The Checkers, who are tied for second in the AHL with 13 games played on the road, are in the midst of a 10-game home stand that marks the longest in the team's three-year history, eclipsing a seven-game run in November of 2010. Having already tied a franchise record with a nine-game road swing to start the season, the Checkers will not play another road game until they visit San Antonio on Dec. 15.
The Checkers average 12.8 penalty minutes per game, which is the lowest total in the AHL. The Checkers are one of three teams (Grand Rapids, Springfield) that has not yet committed a 10-minute or game misconduct, while only one team (Albany) has fewer major penalties than the Checkers' 10.
In Zach Boychuk and Drayson Bowman, the Checkers boast two of the AHL's top eight goal scorers. Boychuk, who scored in back-to-back games against Oklahoma City over the weekend, is tied for second with 12 goals, trailing Syracuse's Tyler Johnson by one. Bowman, who broke a team record with goals in eight consecutive games earlier this season, is tied for fifth with 11. Both players are on pace to break their personal bests of 22 (Boychuk) and 17 goals (Bowman) and at the AHL level. Along with Chris Terry (eight goals), the Checkers have three players on pace to break Terry's team record of 34 goals set during the 2010-11 season.
Special on Special Teams
The Checkers, who are tied for second in the AHL with 26 points, are the only team to rank in the top five in both the power play (1st - 24.7 percent) and penalty kill (5th - 87.7 percent). Drayson Bowman and Zach Boychuk are tied for second in the league in power-play goals (five), Marc-Andre Gragnani is tied for fifth in power-play assists (seven) and Boychuk is tied for fourth in power-play points (10).
Zach Boychuk has points in each of his last four games (Nov. 18-25; 3g, 1a), goals in each of his last two (Nov. 24-25; 2g) and goals in each of his last four home games (Nov. 8-25; 5g, 1a)
Zac Dalpe has points in each of his last two games (Nov. 24-25; 1g, 1a)
Justin Faulk has assists and points in each of his last two games (Nov.24-25; 2a)
Marc-Andre Gragnani (lower-body, 11/8) – missed seven games