Ask coach Jeff Daniels what he knows about the Checkers’ next opponent, the Peoria Rivermen, and he’ll answer quickly and without hesitation.
Though the specific example is relevant as it pertains to Charlotte’s opponent for its first two home games of the season on Saturday and Sunday, the Rivermen aren’t the most mysterious team it will face all season. With former NHL goal-scoring champion Jonathan Cheechoo in tow, they might actually rank among the more recognizable.
It’s the Checkers new position in the AHL’s Western Conference that will have the team heading into unfamiliar territory more often than not. Of the 13 teams they’ll play over the course of this season, they faced only two – Hershey and Norfolk – last season. For the others, including the Rivermen, the statistical head-to-head records are blank.
It almost feels as if they’ve joined a new league, taking a couple of their old rivals with them.
“It really does,” said Daniels. “It’s exciting to play new teams and play in new places, even if we don’t really know what to expect in terms of their teams. At least it’s the same both ways, because they won’t really know us either.”
Daniels and assistant coach Geordie Kinnear will have the chance to see some video of their new opponents’ previous games, but won’t be able to draw on personal experience until match-ups begin to repeat later in the season. Plus, in situations like the one later this month, where they visit Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Houston on consecutive nights, there won’t be a lot of time to study.
That suits Daniels just fine, as he doesn’t see the team’s move west presenting any kind of competitive disadvantage. The travel situation should also be similar, with the team taking slightly longer flights to a particular destination before hopping on the bus to drive between divisional cities. The only real exception to that rule will be a January trip to Abbotsford in western Canada.
“It’s a little bit different because if you play a team enough you get to know some tendencies, but we know we’re going to play our game no matter what, and that’s what we’re trying to get to now.
“We’re facing a lot of new teams this year, but for now our focus is on us.”
It’s been an intense focus of late. Other than the Sunday travel day following Saturday night’s game in Norfolk, the Checkers have been on the ice each day. That will amount to five consecutive days of uninterrupted practice by the time Saturday’s game comes around, with some of those split up into two groups to give players even more repetitions and one-on-one instruction than normal.
While tough on the players, who only had one off day during the two-week training camp that preceded their road opener, Daniels believes it will beneficial as the team looks to improve defensively.
“We were really able to drive some things home,” he said.
After he missed most of Saturday’s game in Norfolk and Monday’s practice with an injury, defenseman Michal Jordan has skated each day and will be in the lineup for the first game against Peoria.