Though a Jan. 6 game at Raleigh’s PNC Arena technically qualified as a “home” game, tonight will be the team’s first in its own building since a win over Peoria back on Dec. 21. During the nine-game stretch of games played elsewhere, the Checkers went 5-2-2, including wins in each of their last five games to tie a franchise record.
Tonight’s game is the second in a four-game season series with the Griffins, the first of which the Checkers won by scoring five unanswered goals to erase a 4-1 deficit at Grand Rapids on Oct. 26. In five all-time meetings since the Checkers joined the Western Conference prior to last season, they are 5-0-0 against the Griffins.
A crazy period of transactions caused by the NHL’s return continued in recent days, with centers Riley Nash and Jeremy Welsh coming back from Carolina on Tuesday evening. Additionally, forward Matt Beca, recalled from ECHL South Carolina Saturday and then reassigned Monday, rejoined the Checkers Wednesday morning.
The return of those players gives the Checkers enough players to field a full lineup tonight, as the team, even with six recalled from the ECHL, was short two forwards at Tuesday’s practice. Nash, recalled Monday to play in Tuesday’s intrasquad scrimmage at Carolina’s training camp, has goals in each of his last two games, including the overtime winner on Sunday. Welsh, who spent three days in Carolina after being recalled on Saturday, also scored in his most recent game, a power-play tally in the 7-0 win over Oklahoma City on Friday.
With nine players still in Carolina and the Checkers’ Marc-Andre Gragnani and Jerome Samson unlikely to return from injury tonight, Nash and Welsh automatically become the team’s second and third highest scorers, respectively, behind Chris Terry. On a team with several inexperienced players, they’ll be expected to help shoulder an increased load, which was a theme during the team’s last two road wins
“It was good leadership from the veteran guys that we have,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “The guys that came up all gave us some good energy, and just like those we lost that are getting an opportunity up top, those guys have that same opportunity here.”
“I thought the guys that had already been here stepped up huge,” said Terry, who scored the overtime winner on Saturday. “(The new players) are good character guys, and it’s an attest to them and how well they played our system.”
Center Luke Pither, acquired in a Hurricanes trade that sent Brian Boucher to Philadelphia, is expected to make his Checkers debut tonight. Fellow ECHL recalls Matthew Pistilli, David Rutherford and Leigh Salters should also remain in the lineup, though Rasmus Rissanen’s return from injury will allow Daniels to make one healthy scratch on defense.
Justin Peters, who has won each of his last three starts, two by way of shutout, should get the start tonight. In addition to Gragnani and Samson, Nicolas Blanchard is also expected to miss the game due to injury.
The Griffins, top affiliate of the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings, haven’t endured the same kind of roster scramble as the Checkers up to this point. As of this morning, they had only lost two players – defensemen Brian Lashoff and Brendan Smith.
Though they’re likely to miss those players, the Midwest Division leaders still have their top four scorers – Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Landon Ferraro and Francis Pare – at their disposal. Their goaltending also remains untouched, with rookie Petr Mrazek (13-4-1, 2.31 goals-against average, .915 save percentage) in line to continue a promising start to his pro career.
Nyquist, who ranks tied for sixth in AHL scoring with 36 points (13g, 23a) in 36 games, saw a prolific eight-game point streak (4g, 7a) end Saturday. Meanwhile, Tatar, another skilled forward that has given the Checkers trouble in the past, has nine points (4g, 5a) in his last eight games. Ferraro, a high second-round pick in 2009, has five goals in his last seven games, giving him 14 on the season.
The Griffins enter tonight’s game having lost both of their previous games last weekend. On Friday, they allowed Rockford to score three unanswered goals to break a 2-2, third period tie in a 5-2 loss. The next night in Grand Rapids, they lost a 2-0, second-period lead when Peoria rallied to win in overtime.
The Checkers' current five-game win streak dating back to Jan. 4 ties a franchise record set from Nov. 20-30, 2011 and is the second-longest active streak in the AHL. Additionally, an overtime loss that precedes it gives the team an active six-game point streak that is one shy of tying a franchise record set on two previous occasions, including one stretch from Dec. 11-21 of this season. It is tied with division rival Texas for the longest active point streak in the AHL and marks the third six-game point streak the Checkers have posted in 39 games this season.
The Checkers, who have also set a team record with five consecutive losses this season, have not lost in regulation since Dec. 30, making them 5-0-1 to start the calendar year of 2013.
The Checkers currently rank in the AHL's top 10 in goals scored per game (3.13 - 8th), goals allowed per game (2.51 - 6th), power-play percentage (20.0% - 7th) and penalty-killing percentage (85.7% - 4th). Only one other AHL team, Springfield, ranks in the top 10 in all four categories. Both clubs currently lead their divisions and are among the top two seeds in their respective conferences.
Welcome to the Club
Due to a combination of injuries and recalls to NHL training camp in Carolina, a total of six players - Forwards Matt Beca, Matthew Pistilli, David Rutherford and Leigh Salters, defenseman Beau Schmitz and goaltender John Muse - made their season debuts with Charlotte in a three-day span last week. Two of those players, Rutherford and Schmitz, played their first-ever AHL games and earned their first professional points with assists on Saturday, while Salters played his first-ever game with the Checkers, also on Saturday. Center Luke Pither, who was acquired by the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday, is expected to join that list the coming days.
For Sunday's game against Houston, the Checkers had 10 players on their roster who started the season in the ECHL. In addition to the players listed above, that list includes forward Justin Shugg and defensemen Tommi Kivisto and Bobby Raymond, who were already with the team prior to last week.
On Saturday in Oklahoma City and on Sunday in Houston, the Checkers won back-to-back games during the five-minute, four-on-four overtime period for the first time in team history. During the team's inaugural season in 2010-11, it had won consecutive games that went beyond regulation on two separate occasions, but needed the shootout to accomplish one or both.
The Checkers are now 5-5 in overtime games this season, including a 3-2 in mark in games decided during the initial overtime period and a 2-3 record in shootouts. Only three AHL teams have played more overtime games than the Checkers' 10 this season.
Puck Stops with Peters
Justin Peters' 144-minute shutout streak came to an end in Oklahoma City on Saturday, with the Barons' Mark Arcobello scoring 43 seconds into the second period. Peters had previously not allowed a goal since the third period of a loss in San Antonio on Dec. 30, having picked up two consecutive shutouts along the way.
Dating back to Dec. 11, Peters is 7-2-1 with a 1.48 goals-against average and .941 save percentage and three shutouts in his last 10 games. For the season, he ranks 11th in the AHL in goals-against average (2.35), is tied for 18th in save percentage (.915) and is tied for second with two shutouts (4). His four shutouts tie a personal single-season high and are the most ever by a Checkers goalie in a single season.
In the Driver's Seat
The Checkers have began each day holding the top spot in the South Division since winning at Rockford on Oct. 20, a span of 86 days. Charlotte, which currently leads the second-place Texas Stars by two points, is 9-4-3 in divisional play this season, having played the fewest inter-divisional games of any South team to this point. Charlotte and Texas are currently among the hottest teams in the AHL, having each earned points in six consecutive games heading into this week.
Riley Nash has points in each of his last three games (Jan. 11-13; 2g, 1a)
Justin Peters has won each of his last three starts (Jan. 4-12)
Marc-Andre Gragnani has points in each of his last three games (Dec. 14-16; 1g, 2a)
Jerome Samson has points in each of his last two games (Jan. 4-6; 1g, 1a)
Justin Shugg has assists and points in each of his last two games (Jan. 12-13; 0g, 2a)
Jerome Samson (upper body, Jan. 6) - missed three games
Nicolas Blanchard (upper body, Jan. 3) - missed five games
Marc-Andre Gragnani (lower body, Dec. 16) - missed 11 games
Jan. 16 - (RW) Matt Beca recalled to Charlotte from South Carolina (ECHL)
Jan. 15 - (C) Riley Nash reassigned to Charlotte from Carolina (NHL)
Jan. 15 - (C) Jeremy Welsh reassigned to Charlotte from Carolina (NHL)
Jan. 12 - (G) John Muse recalled to Charlotte from Florida (ECHL)
Jan. 12 - (D) Beau Schmitz recalled to Charlotte from Florida (ECHL)
Jan. 12 - (RW) Matthew Pistilli signed professional tryout contract
Jan. 11 - (F) David Rutherford recalled to Charlotte from Florida (ECHL)
Jan. 10 - (C) A.J. Jenks recalled to Charlotte from Florida (ECHL)
Jan. 16 - (LW) Leigh Salters released from professional tryout contract
Jan. 14 - (F) Zac Dalpe recalled to Carolina (NHL) from Charlotte
Jan. 14 - (F) Brett Sutter recalled to Carolina (NHL) from Charlotte
Jan. 12 - (G) Dan Ellis recalled to Carolina (NHL) from Charlotte
Jan. 12 - (D) Justin Faulk recalled to Carolina (NHL) from Charlotte
Jan. 12 - (D) Bobby Sanguinetti recalled to Carolina (NHL) from Charlotte
Jan. 12 - (LW) Drayson Bowman recalled to Carolina (NHL) from Charlotte
Jan. 12 - (RW) Tim Wallace recalled to Carolina (NHL) from Charlotte
Jan. 12 - (F) Zach Boychuk recalled to Carolina (NHL) from Charlotte