The Checkers begin a six-game home stand that ties their longest of the season with crucial back-to-back games against the Chicago Wolves.
Heading into the first of the two match-ups on Saturday, Chicago (32-22-5) trails Charlotte (31-19-8) by just one point in the Midwest Division. A regulation win by the visitors would knock the Checkers out of the top spot for the first time since the calendar turned to 2012.
The weekend games will complete the eight-game season series between the two clubs, with Chicago holding a 4-2-0 edge thus far.
The Checkers will be hoping for a better result than they saw last time these two teams met, as they took just a single point by way of shootout loss and a regulation loss in back-to-back games in Chicago starting Feb. 18.
Those results give Chicago a three-game winning streak over Charlotte, which last defeated the Wolves on New Year’s Eve.
“Those guys have played us hard all year and this should be no different,” said Checkers captain Brett Sutter.
The 1-0 shootout loss on Feb. 18, in which goaltenders John Muse and Eddie Lack each earned a shutout, started a run of four overtime defeats in the Checkers’ last seven games. The Checkers have just one regulation win since, but have earned at least one point in each of their last four games.
In order to break that run of extra-time setbacks, coach Jeff Daniels will be looking for more offense, with the team scoring just five times in its last three games.
“I like the way we’ve played. I think we’ve played hard the whole time,” he said. “We’ve just had some trouble scoring goals here lately.”
Center Riley Nash and defensemen Justin Krueger, Chris Murray and Rasmus Rissanen will all likely remain out for Charlotte. Every member of that group participated in practices this week to some extent, though most were limited. Professional tryout signing Brandon Gentile, who made his Checkers debut last week, will likely see more games on defense.
In goal, Charlotte is likely to return to its rotation between Mike Murphy and Justin Peters, the latter of whom has yet to face Chicago this season. Peters started the team’s most recent game, making 24 saves in Sunday’s overtime loss in Lake Erie.
Special teams will be an area to watch over the weekend, with the Checkers going 31.3 percent on the power play (5-for-16) and 100 percent on the penalty kill (20-for-20) against Chicago this season.
5th Western Conference
GOALS / GAME
GOALS ALLOWED / GAME
PIM / GAME
Though they suffered through a five-game winless streak following their big weekend victories over Charlotte last month, the Wolves have won two in a row to maintain the pressure heading into this weekend. They most recently overtook Milwaukee by a 5-2 score on Wednesday, meaning that they’ve played one more game than the Checkers this season.
Leading scorer Mark Mancari (49 points in 53 games), has been a thorn in the Checkers’ side since missing the first three games of the season series due to recalls with the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks. In three games since, he has four goals to lead all players over the course of the head-to-head match-ups. The veteran of 42 NHL games recorded his second hat trick of the season on Sunday and is tied for the AHL lead with seven game-winning goals.
Lack has also done some of his best work against the Checkers, going 3-1-0 with a 1.73 goals-against average, .949 save percentage and one shutout. The native of Sweden has started four of the team’s last five games, stopping 57 of 60 shots over its last two. For the season, he ranks fouth in the AHL with a .926 save percentage and eighth with a 2.30 goals-against average. Together, Lack and teammate Matt Climie have given the Wolves the league’s third-best team goals-against average at 2.56.
Though Charlotte’s power play has cooled down after an impossibly hot stretch in January (three goals in its last 26 chances), Chicago ranks last in the league in that department at just 13.7 percent this season.
• OVERTIME STREAKS: The Checkers’ current run of three consecutive overtime games ties two previous instances, including one earlier this season, for the longest in the team’s two-year history. Of the three streaks, the latest marks the only time the team has lost all three games. Including a shootout loss on Feb. 18, Charlotte has now lost four consecutive games that were tied at the end of regulation, setting a new team record.
• SHOOTOUTS: After a run of three in their last six games, the Checkers now rank tied for third in the AHL in total shootout appearances (10). They rank tied for 13th in scoring (.328) and tied for 17th in goaltending (.333 opponent shooting) and have lost each of their last three, tying a team record, to fall to 5-5 on the season.
The Checkers have five players who have scored on more than half of their attempts this season, including Chris Terry (5-for-10), Drayson Bowman (3-for-5), A.J. Jenks (3-for-5), Justin Krueger (2-for-3), Nicolas Blanchard (1-for-1). They also have two players who are scoreless on more than three attempts in Zac Dalpe (0-for-7) and Zach Boychuk (0-for-4). In goal, Mike Murphy is the top option with a save percentage of .714 (20-for-28).
• PENALTY KILL: The Checkers have allowed just one power play goal over their last 12 games, killing 44 of 45 penalties during that span (97.8 percent). That goal came on a five-on-three during a Feb. 11 game in Peoria in which Charlotte killed seven of eight penalties.
For the season, the Checkers, who are 26-for-26 over their last eight contests, rank tied for second in the AHL with an 86.1 percent success rate. Discipline has been a factor, as they have faced fewer shorthanded situations than any other team (223).
• HOLDING THE LEAD: The Checkers have entered every game of 2012 as Midwest Division leaders. Since claiming the lead with a win in Grand Rapids on Nov. 5, they’ve only relinquished it once for a four-day period in late December, with a win in Rockford on Dec. 30 good enough to get it back. Through games of March 4, they held a three-point lead over the Chicago Wolves, who they face twice this weekend.
• (D) Chris Murray – missed two games, last played Feb. 25 vs. Oklahoma City
• (D) Rasmus Rissanen - missed three games, last played Feb. 24 vs. Oklahoma City
• (D) Justin Krueger - missed five games, last played Feb. 18 at Chicago
• (C) Riley Nash – missed nine games, last played Feb. 10 at Milwaukee
• March 3 – (LW) Zach Boychuk reassigned to Charlotte from Carolina (NHL)
• March 5 – (LW) Darren Archibald reassigned to Kalamazoo (ECHL) from Chicago
• March 5 – (D) J.P. Testwuide reassigned to Abbotsford from Chicago
• March 5 – (D) Jordan Henry reassigned to Chicago from Abbotsford