There’s no question the Checkers have had about enough of playing on the road. The good news is that they won’t be seeing much of it for the next several weeks.
Having just concluded the longest road swing of its season, the team will now play seven of its next eight games at Time Warner Cable Arena, beginning with a two-game set against Rockford this Friday and Sunday. It will take the Checkers over two months to play their next nine road games, as opposed to the nine they just crammed into a three-week period.
That should give them plenty of opportunities to maintain or improve upon their current standing as Midwest Division leaders and the Western Conference's No. 2 seed, not that they’re complaining after going 5-4-0 on the longest road swing in the team’s two-year history that included three separate three-in-three clusters.
“I thought it was good,” said Checkers coach Jeff Daniels. “There were a couple of games that we’d like to have back and maybe a couple that we might have stolen points. It probably caught up to us a little bit on that last one, but overall you come through it with a winning record and you’re happy about that.”
The last game Daniels spoke of, a 5-2 loss to the Houston Aeros on Sunday, was seemingly the only time that fatigue became an obvious factor. The team skated briefly on Tuesday morning before that day’s Charity Golf Classic, but will enjoy its first full day off from skating and/or travel on Wednesday before heading back to practice the following day.
At that time, Daniels said that a focus would be on generating more offense. Though the season’s first week ended with the belief that the team would be able to score goals in bunches and would need the most work on defending, the tables seem to have turned one month later. The Checkers enter this weekend’s games ranked 21st in the AHL with an average of 2.69 goals per game while checking in at No. 6 in goals-against average (2.50).
“We’ve stressed from day one that we’re a defense-first team, and we’re not going to get away from that, but offensively, we can be better and get more five-on-five goals,” said Daniels, whose team has scored 16 of its 43 goals on its 10th-ranked power play (20.0 percent). “It’s not for a lack of chances, but we’ve had some guys that are off to slower starts and we’ve just got to finish the ones we have. We’ve also got to bear down in front of the net, which we haven’t always done.”
Should the Checkers’ offense be able to get them out in front, it seems that goaltending can take care of the rest. Mike Murphy and Justin Peters, who Daniels considered his No. 1 and 1A options entering the season, have each played well. Though Murphy has played 11 games to Peters’ six, their statistics to this point are nearly identical. They share a 2.36 goals-against average (14th AHL), with Murphy’s .926 average (t-8th) beating Peters’ .924 (t-11th) by the narrowest of margins.
Peters’ performance has been particularly encouraging, as the goaltender battled injury issues earlier in the season but is back to full form, stopping 84 of 88 shots in his last three games, including a 29-save performance in Saturday’s win in Oklahoma City that stopped a would-be Barons rally in the third period.
“I think he’s starting to find a rhythm after not getting a lot of game action (with the Hurricanes) last year,” said Daniels of Peters. “He probably won us the game on Saturday.”
With the possible exception of center Cedric McNicoll, who did not skate with the team on Tuesday, the Checkers should have a healthy lineup heading into the weekend. That includes defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti, who left Sunday’s game with an apparent foot injury and did not skate with the team as a precaution upon returning to Charlotte.
That means that the Checkers will continue to carry at least one extra forward (depending on McNicoll’s health), with Scott Pitt (on a professional tryout) and Justin Shugg still up from ECHL Florida. Daniels said that things would stay that way for the time being.
“We might rotate some guys in and out of the lineup,” he said. “They push each other, and as coaches we have that option to make changes if we need to.”
Pitt, a 23-year-old rookie out of Merceyhurst College, has played in all six games since joining the Checkers on Nov. 3 but has yet to find the score sheet. Daniels suggested that could change before too long.
“I think he’s played well,” said Daniels, who kept Pitt in the lineup on Sunday while Shugg sat out as a healthy scratch. “He’s gotten better every game since he’s been up here, and he’s very determined to make a point that he belongs here. He’s working hard and is getting close to giving us some offense.”