The game is the latest in the season-long GEICO Cup Challenge competition, which rewards the team with the most points at the end of the eight-game season series between the two clubs. So far, Charlotte has won both meetings this season, including a 5-2 win at Norfolk on Nov. 21 and a 3-1 win at Raleigh’s PNC Arena on Jan. 6.
Following tonight’s game, the last in a three-game home stand, the Checkers head up to Norfolk to play the Admirals on Wednesday before returning home to play back-to-back games against the Abbotsford Heat next weekend.
The Checkers enter tonight’s game coming off a regulation loss, something they hadn’t been able to say since Dec. 30. The team started 2013 with a record of 6-0-1, setting a new franchise record with six consecutive wins and tying a team record with a seven-game point streak.
If the result in Thursday’s 5-3 loss to Grand Rapids was uncommon, the game shared some characteristics with previous wins. For the third time in four game since the Checkers lost a handful of top offensive weapons to the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes, they generated less than 20 shots on goal – the only three times that has occurred all season.
“There are so many new faces, and any chemistry we had was lost when the lockout ended,” said coach Jeff Daniels, who could again have as many as seven players who started the season in the ECHL in his lineup tonight. “There are a lot of goals out of our lineup right now.”
To be exact, players expected to miss tonight’s game due to injury or NHL recall, including Drayson Bowman, Zach Boychuk and Zac Dalpe, accounted for 72 of the team’s 126 goals (57.1 percent). Not only are the finishers out of the lineup, but those that help create those chances and fuel the team’s normally aggressive style of play have also been missed.
“We’ve lost those forwards, but even (Bobby) Sanguinetti, (Justin) Faulk and (Marc-Andre) Gragnani being out are three really good puck-moving defensemen that really helped our offense,” said Daniels.
“Our transition game hasn’t been there the last two games, and that’s hurt us,” said captain Brett Sutter.
Of a group of injured players that includes Nicolas Blanchard, A.J. Jenks, Jerome Samson and Gragnani, only Gragnani is thought to have a chance of returning tonight. The veteran defenseman practiced fully with the team on Friday for the first time since suffering a lower-body injury on Dec. 16.
“He looks good out there, but it’s hard to say because he’s missed some time,” said Daniels following Friday's practice.
Helping to offset the loss of offense to the NHL are forwards Tim Wallace, who makes his return from NHL training camp, and Andreas Nodl, who made his Checkers debut on Thursday.
The Checkers, off since playing at home on Thursday, should enjoy the advantage of being more rested than their opponents for tonight’s game. The Admirals are playing the third of a three-in-three set, having split two home games with St. John’s on Friday and Saturday. Following a 1-0 loss to the IceCaps last night in which they went goalless on 28 shots, a five-hour bus ride to Charlotte to play less than 24 hours later awaited.
That leaves the Admirals with some adversity to conquer as they aim to pick up just their second win in their last nine games. Since the teams last met in Raleigh, Norfolk has lost four of five to rank last in the Eastern Conference while the Checkers won that same amount to earn first in the West.
Like the Checkers and every other team in the AHL, Norfolk is missing top players now that its NHL affiliate is back in business. Four of its top five scorers – Peter Holland, Kyle Palmieri, Sami Vatanen and Devante Smith-Pelly – are now on Anaheim's roster, as are defensemen Jordan Hendry, Hampus Lindholm and goalie Frederik Andersen.
Of those recalled from the ECHL to fill the void, Josh Brittain, most recently of the Fort Wayne Komets, has three goals in his last four games for Norfolk.
Despite losing Andersen to the NHL, Norfolk actually gained more experience in goal due to players he beat out for the Ducks’ backup job. In addition to rookie Igor Bobkov, who remains with the team, 30-year-old Viktor Fasth and 28-year-old Jeff Deslauriers formed the team’s goalie tandem on Saturday. Fasth played the team’s last three games, while Deslauriers, who has 62 games of NHL experience, has yet to make his Admirals debut.
The Checkers' six-game win streak from Jan. 4-16, which ended with a 5-3 loss to Grand Rapids on Thursday, set a new franchise record, topping the old mark of five set from Nov. 20-30, 2011. It was tied for the third-longest streak posted in the AHL this season.
Having been preceded by an overtime loss, the win streak gave the team points in seven consecutive games, tying a franchise record set on two previous occasions, including once this season from Dec. 11-21. It marked the third point streak of six or more games the Checkers had set in 40 games this season.
The Checkers, who also set a team record with five consecutive losses this season, had previously not lost in regulation since Dec. 30. They are now 6-1-1 in 2013.
Less than two hours after their selection to the 2013 All-Star Classic, defenseman Michal Jordan and goalie Justin Peters had standout games in the team's 5-3 loss to Grand Rapids on Thursday.
Jordan, an All-Star for the first time in his three professional seasons, scored twice in the second period, making his first multi-goal game as a professional. Jordan, who had nine goals in his previous 182 AHL games, now has three points in his last two games (2g, 1a) while improving his plus/minus rating to plus-12, which is tied for eighth among AHL defensemen.
Peters, set to make his second All-Star appearance and first as a Checker, made 36 saves to keep his team in the game despite being out-shot 41-17. Dating back to Dec. 11, he is 8-3-1 with a 1.58 goals-against average, .941 save percentage and four shutouts.
Making the Most of Opportunities
Since the Carolina Hurricanes made their first major wave of recalls on Jan. 12, the Checkers have taken fewer than 20 shots in three of four games - their only games with fewer than 20 shots all season. That includes back-to-back games against Grand Rapids on Wednesday and Thursday in which the team set and then tied a franchise record for fewest shots in a single game with 17.
Despite the low shot totals in those three games, the Checkers were able to score eight goals on 53 shots (15 percent), to go 2-1-0 in those games.
With seven players who started the season with Charlotte on the Carolina Hurricanes' opening-night roster, the Checkers are missing 72 of the team’s 126 goals (57.1 percent) from this season.
The Checkers currently rank in the AHL's top 10 in goals scored per game (3.07 - 10th), goals allowed per game (2.51 - 5th), power-play percentage (19.4% - 9th) and penalty-killing percentage (86.4% - 4th). Only two other AHL teams, Springfield and Toronto, rank in the top 10 in all four categories. All three clubs currently lead their respective divisions.
Welcome to the Club
Due to a combination of injuries and recalls to NHL training camp in Carolina, a total of eight players - Forwards Matt Beca, Andreas Nodl, Matthew Pistilli, Luke Pither, David Rutherford and Leigh Salters, defenseman Beau Schmitz and goaltender John Muse - have made their season debuts with Charlotte in the last 10 days. Two of those players, Rutherford and Schmitz, played their first-ever AHL games and earned their first professional points with assists on Jan. 12, while Nodl and Salters played his first-ever games with the Checkers on Jan. 12 and Jan. 17, respectively.
In the Driver's Seat
The Checkers have began each day holding at least a share of the top spot in the South Division since winning at Rockford on Oct. 20, a span of 90 days. They are currently tied with Texas with 53 points, with both teams having played an equal 41 games. Charlotte is 9-4-3 in divisional play this season, having played the fewest inter-divisional games of any South team to this point.
Justin Shugg has points in each of his last four games (Jan. 12-17; 1g, 3a)
Tim Wallace has points in each of his last three games (Jan. 4-11; 2g, 5a) and assists in each of his last two (1g, 5a)
Marc-Andre Gragnani has points in each of his last three games (Dec. 14-16; 1g, 2a)
Michal Jordan has points in each of his last two games (Jan. 16-17; 2g, 1a)
Luke Pither has points in each of his last two games (Jan. 16-17; 1g, 1a)
Jerome Samson has points in each of his last two games (Jan. 4-6; 1g, 1a)
A.J. Jenks (upper body, Jan. 17) - out for tonight's game
Jerome Samson (upper body, Jan. 6) - missed five games
Nicolas Blanchard (upper body, Jan. 3) - missed seven games
Marc-Andre Gragnani (lower body, Dec. 16) - missed 13 games
Jan. 18 - (RW) Tim Wallace reassigned to Charlotte from Carolina (NHL)
Jan. 17 - (RW) Andreas Nodl assigned to Charlotte from Carolina (NHL)
Jan. 17 - (F) Brett Sutter reassigned to Charlotte from Carolina (NHL)
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. 13 - (C) Luke Pither assigned to Charlotte from Carolina (NHL)
Jan. 18 - (D) Tommi Kivisto reassigned to Florida (ECHL) from Charlotte
Jan. 18 - (RW) Matthew Pistilli released from professional tryout contract
Jan. 18 - (C) Jeremy Welsh recalled to Carolina (NHL) from Charlotte
Jan. 16 - (LW) Leigh Salters released from professional tryout contract
Jan. 14 - (F) Zac Dalpe recalled to Carolina (NHL) from Charlotte