The game, which marks the Checkers’ annual Race Night, will pit the two conference foes against each other for the first time this season. They’ve been among the West's top seeds throughout the current campaign, with Charlotte currently tied for first place and Abbotsford ranking fifth.
The two teams will meet again in short order, with a rematch, part of a doubleheader with the Charlotte Bobcats, set for noon Saturday. Since winning their first-ever game against Abbotsford last season, the Checkers have lost three in a row to the Heat.
After enjoying a breakout special teams game in the first of two meetings against Norfolk last week, the Checkers went 0-for-7 on the power play and 1-for-3 on the penalty kill in losing Wednesday’s rematch by a 3-1 score. However, coach Jeff Daniels found that to be more indicative of a larger issue.
"We got outworked," he said Friday morning. "Right now we're not built like the finesse team we tried to be."
The one-goal performance was more reminiscent of some offensive struggles the team experienced immediately following the lockout than in the 6-1 blowout of the Admirals on Sunday. However, two Checkers did extend point streaks on Charlotte’s only goal, with scorer Andreas Nodl now having three points (1g, 2a) in his last two games following a scoreless debut on the day of his assignment from the Carolina Hurricanes.
Another new addition, center Luke Pither, assisted on the goal to earn his sixth point (3g, 3a) in his first four games with the team, including at least one point in each game.
On Wednesday, goalie Justin Peters allowed more than one goal for just the fifth time in his last 13 starts. He'll make his fifth consecutive start tonight, with Daniels saying that he had not yet made a decision on what to do for the quick turnaround on Saturday. Normally, goalies would alternate games through such tight scheduling, with John Muse waiting in the wings.
Forward Nicolas Blanchard, who has missed the last eight games but recently resumed practicing fully with the team, will play tonight for the first time since Jan. 3. Forward Matt Beca and defenseman Beau Schmitz will be healthy scratches, while forwards A.J. Jenks and Jerome Samson will remain out due to injury.
The Heat enter tonight’s match-up on a season-best, four-game win streak, including two apiece against Hamilton and Milwaukee. All of those came at the tail end of an eight-game home stand, with tonight marking Abbotsford’s first road game of 2013.
Far and away the AHL’s best defensive team with an average of just 2.03 goals allowed per game (by comparison, second-place Springfield allows 2.40 goals per game), the Heat have not given up more than one since losing 3-1 to Chicago on Jan. 11. After shutting out Milwaukee in their last game on Sunday, the Heat have allowed just three goals during their active four-game win streak.
"They play a very structured game and have everyone buying in defensively," said Daniels. "We can't be cute with the puck like we were the other night."
Goalies Barry Brust and Danny Taylor have been a big part of the Heat’s stinginess, ranking first and second in the AHL in goals-against average, respectively. Brust, who has played 16 of the team’s games, has a GAA of 1.44, with Taylor, who has played 21, checking in at 1.68. Brust also leads the league with a .948 save percentage, with Taylor tied for third at .932.
Brust earned the 30-save shutout on Sunday, his fourth of the season. The veteran netminder set an AHL record with a 268-minute shutout streak in November.
Low-scoring games are the norm for the Heat, who rank 29th in goals scored with an average of just 2.25 per game. Scoring leader Ben Walter has 26 points in 35 games, which is the fourth-lowest total of any player who leads his team in points. Shouldering the offensive load of late have been forward Krys Kolanos and former Checkers defenseman Brett Carson, who have goals in each of their last two games.
Forward Sven Baertschi and defenseman T.J. Brodie highlight the Heat's losses to the NHL's Calgary Flames. Leading goal scorer Roman Horak (14 goals) should be in tonight's lineup following a two-game stint with the Flames.
Pither's Dream Debut
In his first four games as a Checker, center Luke Pither, who the Carolina Hurricanes acquired in a Jan. 13 trade that sent goaltender Brian Boucher to Philadelphia, has six points (3g, 3a). That includes at least one point in all four games and a career-high, three-point performance (2g, 1a) against Norfolk on Jan. 20.
The games were the first AHL outings of the season for Pither, who scored 22 points (9g, 13a) in 24 games for the ECHL's Wheeling Nailers prior to the trade. In 110 career AHL games with Adirondack and Charlotte, Pither now has 36 points (14g, 22a).
Nodl Finds His Niche
After going scoreless in his Checkers debut that came just seven hours after his official assignment from the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes, forward Andreas Nodl has three points (1g, 2a) in his last two games.
Prior to joining the Checkers on Jan. 17, Nodl, who spent the past two seasons in the NHL with Philadelphia and Carolina, had not played an AHL game since April 10, 2010. His two-assist performance on Jan. 20 was his first multi-assist game in the league since Dec. 30, 2009, while his goal on Jan. 23 was his first in the AHL since April 9, 2010.
Following Saturday's game against Abbotsford, Checkers defenseman Michal Jordan, goalie Justin Peters and coach Jeff Daniels will depart for the AHL All-Star Classic in Providence, RI.
Jordan, an All-Star for the first time in his three professional seasons, has three goals in his last three games, including his first career multi-goal game against Grand Rapids on Jan. 16, less than two hours after the announcement of his selection. Jordan, who had nine goals in his previous 182 AHL games, now has four points (3g, 1a) in his last four games while improving his plus/minus rating to plus-14, which is tied for first on the team and tied for sixth among AHL defensemen.
Peters, set to make his second All-Star appearance and first as a Checker, is 9-4-1 with a 1.65 goals-against average, .940 save percentage and four shutouts since Dec. 11. For the season, he ranks 10th in the AHL with a 2.30 goals-against average, 12th with a .919 save percentage and second with five shutouts.
The Checkers currently rank in the AHL's top 10 in goals scored per game (3.09 - 10th), goals allowed per game (2.49 - 6th), power-play percentage (19.8% - t-8th) and penalty-killing percentage (85.7% - 5th). Only two other AHL teams, Springfield and Toronto, rank in the top 10 in all four categories. All three clubs currently hold at least a share of their division lead.
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 95 days. They are currently tied with Texas, which has played one fewer game and thus holds the tiebreaker by way of having a better winning percentage. Charlotte is 9-4-3 in divisional play this season, having played the fewest inter-divisional games of any South team to this point.
Luke Pither has points in each of his last four games (Jan. 16-23; 3g, 3a) and assists in each of his last three (Jan. 17-23; 2g, 3a)
Andreas Nodl has points in each of his last two games (Jan. 20-23; 1g, 2a)
Jerome Samson has points in each of his last two games (Jan. 4-6; 1g, 1a)
A.J. Jenks (upper body, Jan. 17) - missed two games
Jerome Samson (upper body, Jan. 6) - missed seven games
Jan. 18 - (RW) Tim Wallace reassigned 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