March 08, 2012 12:55 PM
As much as the opponent suggests a make-or-break weekend coming up for the Checkers, that designation may have been true regardless of which team they face.
The Chicago Wolves, who trail the Checkers by just one point in the standings, head to Charlotte for back-to-back games starting Saturday. For the home team, it presents a chance to re-create the buffer that once existed prior to a second-half surge by the Chicago. For the visitors, it’s a chance to knock Charlotte out of the top spot for the first time in 2012.
However, even with that potential eight-point swing looming, coach Jeff Daniels is more focused on the overall playoff picture. Despite their strong 39-19-8 record, Charlotte is just five points ahead of ninth place with 18 games to go in an extremely tight and competitive Western Conference race.
“We can’t keep focusing on who we’re playing, because we have to win games no matter who it is,” said Daniels, whose team is 2-1-4 in its last seven games. “They would be big games either way.”
That being said, there may not be any way around the magnitude of this particular head-to-head clash, especially given the fact that it will mark the final two meetings of a grueling eight-game season series that Chicago leads by way of a 4-2-0 record.
“In the back of your mind, you know what the standings look like,” said Brett Sutter. “Those guys have played us hard all year and this should be no different.”
It’s hard to judge the Checkers’ momentum heading into the weekend. On one hand, they’ve earned at least one point in six of their last seven games, which is no small feat. On the glass-half-empty side, three shootout losses and one overtime loss mean just two victories in that same stretch.
“I like the way we’ve played. I think we’ve played hard the whole time,” said Daniels. “We’ve just had some trouble scoring goals here lately.”
To that point, the Checkers have just five goals in their last three games, though part of that can be attributed to two recent outings against a stingy Lake Erie team that Daniels called, “One of the hardest-working teams we’ve played against all year.” Though the shootout losses and even the overtime loss can be at least somewhat chalked up to bad luck (the Checkers believe the latter was a result of a call on the winning goal that could have gone either way), the thought is that they could have done more to avoid those toss-ups.
“It’s kind of funny this time of year,” said Sutter. “We’ve gone through stretches where we haven’t been scoring goals but were still playing good defense and got out of them. We just need to stick to our details.”
With Drayson Bowman and Jerome Samson in the NHL and Riley Nash injured, at least part of the team’s scoring issues stem from limited personnel, though it suffered its leanest stretch of the season with a full lineup in early December en route to its current AHL ranking of 17th in goals scored.
Nash, who was limited in Thursday’s practice with an upper-body injury, likely won’t make his return, nor will defensemen Justin Krueger and Rasmus Rissanen. With the Carolina Hurricanes currently carrying an extra forward, it’s possible that Bowman or Samson could return, though Bowman has missed the last two games due to illness.
One thing the Checkers can take from their previous meetings with Chicago is demonstrated success on the power play (5-for-16; 31.3 percent), which will come as welcome news for a team that hasn’t scored in its last three games (0-for-12). They spent some time practicing that on Thursday, with Sutter one player not typically featured in that role now scheduled to take part.
Beyond what can see on the stat sheet, there are also the usual grudges and memories that carry over from game to game in a long series, with the teams having last met just three weeks earlier.
“That’s with any team, but with the way things are it’s going to be a war,” said Sutter. “They have some physical guys on their team, so I’m sure there will be a bit of blood but nothing too crazy.”