The first-ever AHL game at Raleigh’s PNC Arena is set for this afternoon, with the Checkers playing host to the regional rival Norfolk Admirals.
With the NHL and NHLPA finally reaching a tentative agreement on a new CBA around 5 a.m., the game may as well mark the unofficial kickoff to more hockey in the state’s capital city, with the Carolina Hurricanes seemingly set to start a shortened season in the near future. It also puts the Checkers’ NHL hopefuls at center stage, with many set to return to Raleigh for training camp in short order.
Today’s game, presented by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, marks the continuation of the GEICO Challenge Cup, which is awarded to the team that finishes with the most points in the eight-game season series. In the only previous meeting this season, Charlotte claimed a 5-2 victory in Norfolk on Nov. 21.
Even before knowing that the lockout would be over at game time, the Checkers, speaking after Saturday’s practice in Raleigh, were already talking about how the game would be an audition of sorts with Hurricanes coaches and management in attendance.
“The most important thing is winning the game and staying on track, but guys hear the rumblings about the lockout and things like that,” said Checkers coach Jeff Daniels. “It’s a chance to get up and make that good impression.”
There will be no shortage of players with a realistic chance to do just that, with 11 of the 20 players expected to be in today’s lineup having played at least one regular-season NHL game at PNC Arena, either with the Hurricanes or against them, in the past. Defenseman Justin Faulk is the only lock to make the team (in fact, it’s possible his playing status may be affected by this morning’s news), while several others who the Hurricanes have recalled from Charlotte in the past will be hoping to graduate for good.
“It’s familiar territory for a lot of us,” said Zac Dalpe, who started each of his first two professional seasons with Carolina, playing a total of 31 NHL games during that time. “Guys get to play in the rink they eventually want to play full time in.”
It’s not yet clear how many open spots the Hurricanes will have, though it’s possible any Checker could unseat a veteran, at least temporarily, with the AHL players having the advantage of already being in game shape.
“There should be no excuses or a feeling out process,” said Dalpe, who scored twice in the Checkers’ 4-0 win over Lake Erie on Friday.
The Checkers are also certain to lose one of their two goalies, with the backup spot in Carolina seemingly open for the time being. Dan Ellis and Justin Peters have both played well this season, with Peters coming off a 23-save shutout on Friday.
Ellis, the more experienced of the two, will get the start today, marking his first appearance at PNC Arena since picking up a 5-2 win with Nashville on Nov. 23, 2008. He’ll be facing his old organization, as Norfolk is affiliated with the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks. Ellis made 37 saves to earn first-star honors against Norfolk in late November.
Forwards Nicolas Blanchard and Justin Soryal and defensemen Marc-Andre Gragnani and Rasmus Rissanen will miss today's game due to injury.
Today’s game marks the first Checkers “home” game in their season series with the new-look Admirals – the reigning Calder Cup champions who switched NHL affiliations over the summer. Last year’s Tampa Bay affiliate that set a professional hockey record with 28 consecutive wins to close the regular season now plays in Syracuse, while the group that will play today is made up of Anaheim Ducks prospects.
Scoring leaders Peter Holland (29 points) and Kyle Palmieri (22 points) are both first-round picks from the 2009 draft, while Emerson Etem was chosen in the first round one year later. In terms of NHL experience, forward Devante Smith-Pelly, who spent half of last season with the Ducks, and veteran defenseman Nate Guenin, who played a handful of games dating back to the 2006-07 season, are names one might recognize.
The Admirals also have a few local ties, as penalty minutes leader Troy Bodie played 50 games for Carolina during the 2010-11 season. Goalie Frederik Andersen, who is likely to get the start tonight, was a 2010 Carolina draft pick before deciding not to sign with the team and re-enter the 2012 draft, when he was chosen by Anaheim. Andersen is 7-8-0 this season with a 2.46 goals-against average and .924 save percentage.
Norfolk has lost each of its last three games, including a 4-3 overtime loss against Syracuse last night. Today’s game will mark the third of a three-in-three set for the Admirals, the first two of which took place at home.
After failing to score more than two goals in five consecutive games, their longest such streak of the season, the Checkers found the back of the net four times to end a four-game winless streak against Lake Erie on Friday. They did so on just 26 shots, which was the second-lowest total of any game during their offensive slump.
The four goals were the most the Checkers had scored since a 5-4 shootout loss to Peoria on Dec. 20. It also marked the fourth time the Checkers have won by four or more goals this season.
Shutting the Door
Justin Peters' 23-save shutout marked the 10th of his AHL career and third of the season. He is now just one away from tying his single season career high set with Albany during the 2008-09 season.
Peters is now one of nine AHL goaltenders with three or more shutouts this season. Together with Dan Ellis' two shutouts, the Checkers' five team shutouts are tied for second in the league.
A Year to Remember
Checkers defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti finished with 58 points (15g, 43a) during the calendar year of 2012, which is more than any other AHL defenseman during that time. Sanguinetti, who finished the 2011-12 campaign with 44 points in his last 44 games, has 19 points (5g, 14a) in 33 games to rank tied for 13th in league scoring among defenseman this season.
Five of Sanguinetti's points, including three of his goals, have come in the Checkers' last eight games. Zach Boychuk (nine points) is the only Checker to score more points during that time.
In the Driver's Seat
The Checkers have held the top spot in the South Division since winning at Rockford on Oct. 20, a span of 76 days. They currently lead the second-place Houston Aeros by two points and are only three points ahead of fourth-place Oklahoma City. The Checkers are 6-4-3 in divisional play this season, having played by far the fewest inter-divisional games of any South team to this point.
- Zach Boychuk has points in each of his last three games (Dec. 30-Jan. 4; 1g, 2a)
- Chris Terry has assists and points in each of his last three games (Dec. 30-Jan. 4; 0g, 4a)
- Marc-Andre Gragnani has points in each of his last three games (Dec. 14-16; 1g, 2a)
- Justin Faulk has assists and points in each of his last two games (Jan. 3-4; 0g, 2a)
- Nicolas Blanchard (upper body, Jan. 3) - missed one game
- Rasmus Rissanen (upper body, Dec. 28) - missed four games
- Marc-Andre Gragnani (lower body, Dec. 16) - missed seven games