Though the Checkers have had success against plenty of AHL teams this season, no one squad knows that better than the Oklahoma City Barons.
Charlotte improved to 5-1-1 in its season series with the AHL’s No. 1 team by way of a convincing 6-2 win at Time Warner Cable Arena Friday night. Up until this night, the series had been closer than the records would suggest, with five of the six games decided by just one goal.
“It’s funny how that works out sometimes,” said Checkers coach Jeff Daniels. “We don’t prepare any differently for them then we do any other team.”
Five of the Checkers goals came against goalie David LeNeveu, who entered the game tops among active AHL goalies with a 2.00 goals-against average. As a team, the Barons ranked first in the league in defense.
Newcomer A.J. Jenks, who joined the team via trade last month, scored two power-play goals to lead the team, with Sean Dolan, Brett Sutter, Chris Terry and Justin Shugg also finding the back of the net. John Muse made 26 saves in goal to improve to 10-3-1 on the season as the Checkers out-shot their opponents 42-28.
For the Checkers, who had just one win in their last five games, the improved effort against one of the league’s best squads was a welcome sign.
“It was pretty close to a full 60,” said Muse, a 23-year-old rookie who has started each of the team’s last five games. “I think that was a good bounceback from last Sunday (a 6-3 loss in Chicago). It's good to come back from a loss like that with a good game tonight.”
“That’s the way we have to play against every team in the league,” said Daniels.
The win extended the Checkers’ Midwest Division lead to three points, though Chicago could potentially put a dent in that mark pending a later result.
Jenks, who did not have a power-play goal in two professional seasons, opened the scoring late in the first period on a wraparound and would make it 4-0 in the second by tipping in a Joe Sova shot from the point. After starting this season without a point in his first 30 games, he now has 7 (4g, 3a) in his last nine.
“I hadn’t had much of a chance on the power play up until now, and tonight we were able to get a couple to go,” said Jenks.
“He’s a big body that goes to the net and has a good shot,” said Daniels of Jenks. “Part of him being on the power play was so that we could use him for faceoffs, but he was able to do those other things as well.”
Jenks’ goals, along with a tip-in by Dolan in the first period, a two-on-one finish by Sutter and a shot by Chris Terry that actually went through the net in the second, gave the Checkers a 5-0 lead at the second intermission. However, there were still nervous moments in the third period, with Oklahoma City striking twice in the first four minutes against a Checkers team that has a league-high six regulation losses when leading after two.
However, Shugg, a 20-year-old rookie playing his fourth AHL game since a lengthy injury spell, eased those by scoring a breakaway goal just 21 seconds after Chris VandeVelde’s tally to restore a four-goal lead.
“That was huge,” said Daniels. “It was a big goal that allowed us to relax a bit.”
The goal gave Shugg 4 points (3g, 1a) in four games since the Checkers recalled him from the ECHL’s Florida Everblades last week. He now has 8 points in his AHL career, all of which have come in his last nine games on either side of a lower-body injury that he suffered on Dec. 15.
Yet another newcomer also contributed the offense, with first-year defenseman Sova picking up 2 assists. Sova, who the Carolina Hurricanes acquired from the New Jersey Devils organization in exchange for Alexei Ponikarovsky last month, took shots from the point that were tipped in by Dolan and Jenks, the second of which helped the Checkers finish 3-for-7 on the power play after recording just one man-advantage goal in their last seven games.
“Before the Chicago game (last week) I hadn’t played in six or seven games, so get right back in on the power play was nice,” said Sova, who re-entered the lineup due to an injury suffered by Justin Krueger. “It was nice to get some points, because that’s what I’m here to do.”
The Checkers suffered yet another injury to their defense during the game, with Rasmus Rissanen leaving the game in the first period and not returning. Charlotte has no other healthy defensemen on the roster, meaning a recall could be necessary for Saturday’s rematch – one the Checkers won’t take lightly.
“They’re in first place for a reason, and I’m sure they’ll try to show that tomorrow night,” said Daniels.
“No chance,” said Jenks when asked if tomorrow’s game would be as easy. “They’re going to come out not feeling good about how they played tonight.”
NOTES: Muse played the first two periods without a backup, as professional tryout signing Dave Caruso experienced flight delays … The Checkers’ three power-play goals tied their season high, set four times previously … Terry’s goal broke a personal 13-game drought … After Jenks’ second goal, Barons goalie Oliver Roy entered the game for his first AHL appearance of the season. He made 18 saves on 20 shots, allowing goals to Terry and Shugg … Six of Sutter’s 17 points this season have come against the Barons (3g, 3a) … The Checkers are one of just two teams (Milwaukee) to hold a winning record in multiple games against Oklahoma City this season … Krueger, Chris Durno, Chris Murray and Riley Nash all sat out due to injury … Fans named Jenks winner of the Roll up Your Sleeves Hardest Worker of the Game award.