A season of streaks continued over the weekend, although not in a way the Checkers would have liked, leading to an increasingly tight battle in the South Division.
As the team departed Wednesday for three more games away from Charlotte, only three points separated the first-place Checkers from the fourth-place Texas Stars. It’s not as though the last-place San Antonio Rampage, who handed them a 5-2 defeat three days ago, are pushovers, either.
That has the Checkers, who went 0-2-1 in a three-in-three set through the South last weekend, close to losing a division lead they’ve held since Oct. 20, a span of 72 days. The current winless streak shares a game, Friday’s overtime loss, with a previous six-game winning streak that tied a franchise record, which illustrates how quickly things have changed this season but also quality of the competition they faced last week.
“It goes to show you how tough our division is,” said coach Jeff Daniels, whose team suffered an overtime loss at Houston on Friday before dropping back-to-back games at Texas and San Antonio. “In one of those games (San Antonio) you put up 51 shots but still can’t get the win.”
Through games of Tuesday night, the South was the AHL’s only division that boasted four teams with 37 or more points. In addition to the teams made up of top Minnesota, Dallas and Florida prospects it played over the weekend, there’s also the small matter of the Oklahoma City Barons, who have featured the Edmonton Oilers’ top three scorers from last season for much of the current campaign.
That’s part of why the Checkers aren’t feeling as though they’re in danger of reverting back to the type of slump they experienced last month, when they set a team record by losing five in a row at home.
“I’m not happy from a points standpoint, but I thought we played OK,” said Daniels. “We didn’t get the wins, but we played a lot better than we did a few weeks ago.”
“We’ve got to find a way to stay consistent,” said forward Tim Wallace.
Some additional notes from Wednesday’s practice:
In their final practice at home before embarking on a trip that will take them to games in Lake Erie on Thursday and Friday and then to Raleigh’s PNC Arena to face Norfolk on Sunday, the Checkers spent some time working on a power play that started the season converting on around 30 percent of its opportunities through 10 games but has scored on just three of its last 41 (7.3 percent) to fall to eighth in the AHL.
“We’ve had some power plays that look good and don’t score and we’ve had some that are bad,” said Daniels. “It’s just that determination to get to the net a little more. There were times when we had chances to go ahead or get back into the game and we didn’t, and it’s got to be better.”
Asked whether the better power plays that don’t score lead to optimism or cause discouragement, the veteran Wallace said the former but, with a slight grin, hinted at the latter.
“You’re supposed to build on it,” he said. “Getting chances is good because if you don’t, that’s when you start to worry.”
A Bobby Sanguinetti goal that was the result of a two-man advantage on Sunday ended an 0-for-18 drought to bring the Checkers within two goals in the third period. While that goal wasn’t enough to mount a comeback in San Antonio – though it was part of a period in which the Checkers set a franchise record with 26 shots against goalie Jacob Markstrom – it was an example of the quality-over-quantity approach Daniels had has been using to try to ease individual angst.
“I’ve been telling the guys that sometimes it’s not how many you score but when you score them,” said Daniels. “You can go 1-for-8, but that goal can be a big goal.”
Forwards Nicolas Blanchard and Zach Boychuk, who each left Sunday’s game early due in injuries, practiced fully on Wednesday and are not expected to miss any time. However, each will bear a scar for the time being.
Blanchard, whose first-period fight ended with a well-aimed punch from San Antonio’s Justin Vaive, had a dark circle under his left eye. Boychuk, who was hit in the face by a skate in the third period, had several stitches along his left cheek, sewing up what was, by all accounts, a rather messy wound
The news wasn’t quite as good on defense, where Marc-Andre Gragnani (lower body) and Rasmus Rissanen (upper body) will not make the upcoming trip and are thus out for the next three games at the earliest. Gragnani has already missed 13 games this season, including five in a row, while Rissanen, who left Friday’s game on one of his first shifts, has missed a total of eight due to injury.
To cover for their absences, the team will retain rookie Tommi Kivisto and Bobby Raymond, who it summoned from the ECHL’s Florida Everblades last week. Kivisto, a Carolina Hurricanes prospect, played the team’s last two games, while Raymond, who spent half of last season with AHL Binghamton, signed a tryout contract prior to Sunday’s game.
“They’re two guys that haven’t played here a lot this year,” said Daniels of the defensive duo, who have played four AHL games combined this season. “It’s just a matter of throwing them into the fire and them taking advantage of the opportunity.
“If we win or lose these games, it’s going to be because of how we play as a team and not because of those two players.”
Both were in the lineup simultaneously on Sunday with Justin Faulk sitting out the third game of a three in three due to what Daniels called “a team decision.” Barring injury, Faulk should play each of the next three, with one of Kivisto or Raymond likely sitting out each game.
New Look for Ellis
Goalie Dan Ellis, technically still on a tryout contract, has set aside the Anaheim Ducks mask he wore for the NHL club last season in favor of a more local look.
Ellis said that the main feature of the mask is a fisherman on either side who remains notably calm in the midst of a Hurricane-like storm and, for good measure, the impending threat of a submarine on one side. In an homage to his current club, it also has Checkers mascot Chubby peering over the cage.
A detailed photo from the Facebook page of designer DAVEART Pro Mask Artwork
can be seen below: