Today’s game, which can be seen on Time Warner Cable channel 520 in addition to AHLLive.com, marks the sixth in the eight-game season series between the two clubs, with Charlotte (29-17-4) holding a three point lead in the GEICO Challenge Cup standings. The Checkers are 3-1-1 in head-to-head meetings thus far, while Norfolk (29-18-3 for the season) is 2-3-0. After dropping the first two games on the road to open the season (including one in overtime), Charlotte has won the last three meetings outright.
With a regulation win tonight, Charlotte could clinch the title with two games to spare. If they earn a point by overtime or shootout loss, they could do no worse than tie in the inaugural competition.
Though they’ve won eight of their last 11 games to earn a four-point lead in the Midwest Division, the Checkers are coming off one of their most lopsided losses of the season. In their first-ever trip to Peoria on Saturday, they fell into a 5-0 hole early in the third period before Jerome Samson and Zach Boychuk scored to save some face.
The three-goal loss in the first of four games the Checkers will play in Peoria before the season is over tied six previous contests for the team’s largest loss margin of the campaign, as they have yet to lose by more than three goals. The game also marked the most shots Charlotte has given up this season, with the Rivermen firing 47 at tryout signing Dave Caruso, who was making his first-ever start for the Checkers and his first AHL appearance of the season.
Though Caruso finished with 42 saves in his first AHL contest since last April, tying him with John Muse for the second-most made by a Charlotte goalie this season behind Mike Murphy’s 44, Muse will more than likely start against Norfolk. Muse is 8-1-0 with a 1.58 goals-against average and .949 save percentage, including a spot-start 4-2 win in the teams’ most recent meeting on Jan. 25 when Murphy suffered an injury during warm-ups.
Since his simultaneous return from injury and a recall to the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes, Jerome Samson has led the Checkers’ offense with 4 points (3g, 1a) in his last three games. He is one of three active Charlotte skaters to have recorded better than a point-per-game against Norfolk (4g, 2a in four meetings), joining Chris Terry (7a in five games) and Bobby Sanguinetti (5a in four games).
Center Riley Nash, who left Friday’s win at Milwaukee with a first-period injury and did not return, is questionable for tonight’s game. He did not suit up for the loss in Peoria.
5th Eastern Conference
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Like the Checkers, Norfolk will also be completing a three-in-three set today, as they took 2-0 and 7-3 home victories against Adirondack on Friday and Saturday, respectively. Including those wins, Norfolk has prevailed in four of seven games since last facing Charlotte.
In Cory Conacher and Trevor Smith, the Admirals boast two of the league’s top five scorers. Conacher, the AHL’s top rookie with 56 points, leads all AHL players in goals (27), power-play goals (12) and minor penalties (33). He has an active seven-game point streak, having recorded 10 points (3g, 7a) since Jan. 27. Smith, in his fifth professional season, is right behind him with 52 points (19g, 33a) in 46 contests.
Norfolk also has defensemen who can contribute offensively, most notably All-Star Mark Barberio. Barberio leads all blueliners in points (41), ranks fourth overall in AHL assists (35) and has one more power-play assist than Chris Terry (21) to rank third in the league.
As a team, Norfolk scores an average of 3.5 goals per game, which is second only to the Hershey Bears. They also have the league’s No. 2 ranked power play at 21.2 percent, just one tenth of a percentage point ahead of the Checkers.
In goal, Dustin Tokarski, a former junior hockey teammate of the Checkers’ Drayson Bowman, has played in 34 of Norfolk’s 50 games, including each of their last four, earning a 2.43 goals-against average (t-11th AHL) and .903 save percentage. Tokarski, who is in a three-way tie for first in the league with 21 wins, has been in net for two of the five meetings this season, with Jarsolav Janus starting the other three.
• SANGUINETTI’S STREAK ENDS: Defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti’s team-record 11-game point streak came to an end Saturday night in Peoria, as he did not factor into the scoring on either of the Checkers’ goals in a 5-2 loss. Dating back to the team’s Jan. 15 in Hershey, he recorded 15 points (5g, 10a) giving him the third-longest streak by any AHL player this season and the fourth longest streak posted by a defenseman since the 2005-06 season.
Despite missing 11 games, Sanguinetti, in his fourth AHL campaign, is on pace to tie his career high in assists (36) and set a new personal best in points (45). He ranks fourth on the team and is tied for 11th among league defensemen in points (27). Twelve of 15 points on his came on the power play, as he ranks tied for third in the AHL in power-play points by a defenseman.
• FINDING MUSE: Starting with his professional debut with Portland at the conclusion of his college career last season and continuing through nine Checkers games this season, rookie goaltender John Muse is now 9-1-0 with a 1.61 goals-against average and .948 save percentage in his AHL career. Though he has not yet played enough minutes to officially qualify among league leaders, he would rank first in both categories this season.
Muse, a 23-year-old undrafted free agent signed by the Checkers this offseason, began the season with the ECHL’s Florida Everblades, where he posted a 7-3-2 record, 2.31 goals-against average and .927 save percentage. A winner of two NCAA national championships as a four-year starter at Boston College, Muse has started each of the Checkers’ last six games with Mike Murphy out due to injury.
• THREE IN THREES: The Checkers are about to conclude their sixth set of three games in three days. They are 9-8-0 this season in games that are a part of a three-in-three set, including a 2-4-0 record in Game One, a 5-1-0 record in Game Two and a 2-3-0 record in Game Three. The Checkers play a total of eight three-in-threes this season.
• HOME ICE ADVANTAGE: The Checkers’ 33 points earned at home this season are the most in the AHL. With a record of 15-7-3 this season, the AHL Checkers have improved to 37-20-7 all-time at Time Warner Cable Arena. Today marks their only game at home during an eight-game stretch that continues when they hit the road for another three-in-three set next weekend.
• John Muse has won each of his last three games (Feb. 3-10).
• Jerome Samson has points in each of his last three games (Feb. 4-11; 3g, 1a).
• Feb. 9 – (LW) Justin Shugg reassigned to Florida (ECHL) from Charlotte
• Feb. 9 – (G) Dave Caruso signed to professional tryout contract
• Feb. 6 – (C) Riley Nash reassigned to Charlotte from Carolina (NHL)
• Feb. 5 – (G) Scott Darling released from professional tryout contract
• Feb. 8 - (D) Evan Oberg reassigned to Norfolk from Tampa Bay (NHL)