The Checkers look to extend their first winning streak in nearly a month and finish their record home stand on a high note when they host the second of back-to-back games against Houston this afternoon.
Today’s noon start is part of the second-ever doubleheader with the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats at Time Warner Cable Arena. It presents an unusually quick turnaround for the two South Division rivals, who went all the way to the seventh round of a shootout in Friday’s 7 p.m. start, a 3-2 win for the Checkers.
After Friday’s game, the Checkers now lead the Aeros by two points in the South Division and have a 2-0-0 record in the eight-game, head-to-head series. Following the match-up, they will depart to San Antonio to play the third of three games in three days.
Having gone from a team-record, five-game losing streak to a stretch of alternating wins and losses over their last four outings, back-to-back wins were a rare and welcome sight for the Checkers, who had not done so since ending a six-game point streak (5-0-1) on Nov. 18-21.
“It’s huge,” said defenseman Justin Faulk, who scored to tie Friday’s game with 12.8 seconds left in regulation. “It's nice to string two together here after that slump we were in, and that's just the team we have. Every team goes in their little ruts throughout the year, and it's good to get that out of the way early and it’s good to get back on track.”
Getting the win, in thrilling fashion no less thanks to Faulk’s last-ditch equalizer and Justin Krueger’s winner in the seventh round of the shootout, should give the team an important boost going the teams' next meeting roughly 14 hours later.
“Obviously it’s a quick turnaround, and we’ve got to find our game right away,” said Daniels.
Goalie Dan Ellis got the win on Friday, stopping 20 shots in regulation and overtime, including arguably the Checkers’ save of the year in the third period to keep the score at an attainable 2-1 in favor of Houston, and four of seven in the shootout. Given the quick turnaround, Justin Peters, who stopped 20 shots in the team’s last victory over Milwaukee on Tuesday, will get the nod today.
Jerome Samson made his return to the lineup on Friday after being a healthy scratch for the first time as a Checker on Tuesday, setting up Nicolas Blanchard’s opening goal and scoring his team’s first goal in the shootout. Jared Staal and Justin Soryal were healthy scratches, while defenseman Rasmus Rissanen missed the game with an upper-body injury - a trend that will continue today.
Even though they needed some last-second heroics to secure Friday’s win, the Checkers were more than happy with their effort against Houston, which had won seven of eight games coming in and was set to overtake them in the South Division prior to Faulk keeping them alive.
“We got the win against a really good team,” said Checkers coach Jeff Daniels. “Both goalies were good, and neither team gave up much.”
The game was the second strong defensive effort in a row for the Checkers, who, including Tuesday’s game against Milwaukee, have held their last two opponents to 22 and 21 shots, respectively. They’ve been particularly stifling at times, holding Milwaukee to just two shots in Tuesday’s second period and limiting Houston to just five total shots in the game’s first 25 minutes on Friday.
Friday’s effort was particularly impressive, as Houston, which features a stable of high draft picks and top prospects, boasted the league’s fifth-best offense coming in.
Matt Hackett, who has played 20 of the team’s 25 games this season, made 32 saves against Charlotte on Friday. Given that already leads the AHL in minutes played with 1,178 even before today’s quick turnaround, rookie Darcy Kuemper could get the start today. Kuemper has a 2.56 goals-against average and .898 save percentage in five appearances, the last of which came all the way back on Nov. 11.
After ending a 10-game goal drought with a third-period goal against Milwaukee on Tuesday, Checkers defenseman Justin Faulk, who tied Friday's game against Houston with 12.8 seconds left in regulation, has scored goals in back-to-back games for the first time all season. Faulk, 20, is now tied with Zach Boychuk for the Checkers' scoring lead and ranks second among all AHL defensemen with 21 points (5g, 16a) in 23 games.
The Secret Weapon
Having scored the shootout-winning goal against Houston on Friday, Checkers defenseman Justin Krueger now has as many shootout goals as he does conventional goals (three) in 77 career AHL games. Krueger, who scored one of his three in-game goals against Lake Erie just eight days ago, now has three goals on six career shootout attempts.
After dropping their first two shootouts of the season to fall to 1-6 in their last seven dating back to last season, the Checkers have now won two in a row, including a seventh-round victory over Houston on Friday. Three of the Checkers' four shootouts this season have gone to extra rounds, with Dan Ellis (1-2) in goal for all three.
Checkers forward Jerome Samson, who started his AHL career with no goals in his first five opportunities, has scored in four of his last five attempts and currently ranks tied for third in the AHL with three shootout goals this season. Goalie Justin Peters, who won his only shootout appearance this season, is one of only five AHL goalies to stop all shots that have come his way (5-for-5).
The Checkers are in the midst of their fourth of seven three-in-three sets this season, having won Game One with a 3-2 shootout win over Houston on Friday. They have posted a combined 8-1-1 record in games that are part of a three-in-three set, including an undefeated 4-0-0 mark in Game One. All time, the Checkers are 33-20-5 in three-in-three games, including a 11-7-2 record in Game One, a 13-3-3 record in Game Two and an 9-10-0 record in Game Three.
The Checkers' current three-in-three set, which features a Saturday rematch against Houston and a road game in San Antonio on Sunday, is one of two this season that take place partially at home and partially on the road. The other five all take place entirely on the road.
Home Stand Comes to a Close
The Checkers play their final game of their team-record, 10-game home stand when they host the Houston Aeros at Time Warner Cable Arena on Saturday. Thus far, the Checkers, who began the streak with a team-record, five-game losing streak, are 3-6-0, bringing their overall home record to 6-7-0. Having started the season with a nine-game road swing that tied a team record set last season, the Checkers are 9-2-2 away from home.
The Checkers have not scored a power play goal in their last four games (0-for-12), marking their longest drought of the season. During that time, they relinquished the title of having the league's most potent power play, dropping to third with a 21.3 percent success rate. Since scoring multiple power-play goals in five of their first eight games, the Checkers have not scored two in the same game since Oct. 28, a span of 18 games.
The Checkers still have three of the AHL's top individual performers on the power play in forwards Drayson Bowman and Zach Boychuk, who are tied for the league lead with six goals apiece, and defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani, who is tied for fourth with nine assists. Together with their fourth-ranked penalty kill, the Checkers are the only AHL team with both of their special teams units ranked in the league's top five.
Zach Boychuk has assists and points in each of his last two games (Dec. 11-14; 0g, 2a)
Justin Faulk has goals and points in each of his lat two games (Dec. 11-14; 2g, 0a)
Rasmus Rissanen (upper body - 12/2) - missed five games