Though the Checkers knew they faced an uphill battle in the last week, that didn’t make the early end to their season any less surprising.
As they returned to Charlotte to clean out their lockers on Tuesday, the team was still searching for answers as to just how they arrived at the point where they were making plans to disperse to their hometowns instead of preparing for their first-round opponent.
While every team in every season is disappointed to miss the playoffs, this particular group didn’t see it coming. It showed all the signs of building on last season’s run to the conference finals as recently as Feb. 12, when it had a six-point lead in the Midwest Division and an 11-point lead over ninth-place Milwaukee, which was one of seven teams to leapfrog the Checkers in the next two months.
“I’m speechless. I don’t know what went wrong,” said goalie Mike Murphy. “We had a lot of talent, and so many guys were excited about this season at the start of the year.”
“I felt like last year we were a young team but we got some experience going pretty deep in the playoffs,” said center Zac Dalpe. “You’ve got high hopes coming into this year, and it just didn’t work out.”
There’s no question that the final third of the season was where things began to go south – they won just nine of their last 26 games – but even with the dust beginning to settle, no one could say exactly why.
“It’s hard to put your finger on one thing when things start going wrong,” said center Riley Nash. “You sometimes go through slumps like that where you just can’t win games, and you sometimes go through streaks where all you do is win and you feel like nothing can go wrong.”
“I think if we would have known the problem it would have been fixed,” said captain Brett Sutter. “I thought the guys played pretty hard. It was just one of those things where we had a hard time winning and it cost us.”
Despite their late slide, the Checkers controlled their own destiny all the way until the season’s final day. Needing only a single point against Milwaukee to clinch a playoff spot, they instead allowed the Admirals to break open a 2-1 game early in the third period with the first of four unanswered goals.
Though that game and Houston’s subsequent win over Texas were what ultimately sealed the Checkers’ fate, neither was a focal point as they attempted to identify key reasons for missing the playoffs. After all, they had won three previous road games that week to even give themselves a fighting chance.
“I believe if we didn’t win the game then we didn’t deserve to be in (the playoffs),” said Nash. “The way we went down the stretch, we didn’t play well enough to win and we can’t put that on anyone but ourselves. We can’t look at Texas losing to Houston in the last day, because we didn’t take care of our own business.”
“We thought that winning three out of four was going to be enough,” said forward Zach Boychuk. “We didn’t get enough help around the league, but you can’t leave it to chance. When you have to win your last four, you know you’ve had a lapse.”
Perhaps proving the point that there wasn’t one single issue that caused the Checkers to miss the playoffs, players and staff offered a few theories and factors as they made their best attempt to answer questions from the media on the team’s exit day. Some of the more prominent themes are listed below.
Perhaps the most frustrating area the Checkers encountered down the stretch was the inability to generate consistent offense despite the weapons at their disposal. After finishing last season tied for second in the AHL with an average of 3.31 goals per game, they finished this campaign at 18th with an average of 2.75.
“I thought for sure going into the season it would be one of our strengths,” said coach Jeff Daniels, whose thought was initially backed up as the team scored 15 times in its first four games. “It wasn’t going to be just one guy that was going to score. I thought we had the depth to score.”
That made it all the more puzzling when nearly every one of his players fell into prolonged scoring slumps, often simultaneously. Though the team lost the likes of Jacob Mikflikier and Oskar Osala from last season’s team, very few returning forwards improved upon their point totals from last season, with Sutter, Nicolas Blanchard and Matthew Pistilli setting career highs in depth roles.
“I think a lot of us had mediocre years after a lot of us had breakout years,” said Murphy, who included his own second half of the season in that group.
“You look at our lineup, and there’s no way we should be out of the playoffs,” said Boychuk. “We definitely underachieved.”
Daniels said there wasn’t a single reason for why the offense dried up for so many of his skilled players.
“Every case is different and every player is different,” said Daniels. “Some guys didn’t put themselves in the tough areas to score goals and some guys did and couldn’t score. We had a lot of guys fighting it for a period of time, and you’re not going to win a lot of games not producing goals.”
When the Checkers scored three or more goals, they had a record of 32-4-2. When they scored two or fewer, they were 6-25-7.
Around the time the season began to slip away, the Checkers began to suffer through a steady stream of injuries. In the last two months, Nash (11 games), Justin Krueger (13), Rasmus Rissanen (six), Justin Soryal (16), Blanchard (eight), A.J. Jenks (eight) and Sean Dolan (six) all missed significant time.
Though perhaps not headliners on their own, the cumulative effect of losing those players for long stretches took its toll.
“We lost a lot of the glue guys,” said Daniels. “Those are guys that you don’t see putting up a lot of points per se, but they do a lot of the dirty work for you. Until you lose them, you don’t know how important they are to your team.
“We were a different team based on some injuries. We lost some key parts and weren’t the same team.”
From the perspective of the parent Carolina Hurricanes, those injuries were a significant part of the Checkers’ struggles in the final stretch.
“For me, that was the big thing,” said Ron Francis, the Hurricanes’ director of hockey operations. “They lost Krueger and Rissanen at the same time when they were playing well, and then a lot of the bigger guys went down. You have to constantly juggle and ask guys to fill different roles.”
No fewer than six Checkers players suffered concussions over the course of the season, five of which occurred after Feb. 10.
“You see it at every level where those are hard to come back from,” said Francis.
Confidence was clearly an issue for the team at times, as it typically enjoyed strong enough starts to games late in the season but would crumble when it couldn’t finish its chances or allowed a goal against.
There were varying explanations for that trend. For instance, Bobby Sanguinetti pointed to the two-game, mid-march series against Norfolk in which the Admirals steamrolled the Checkers by scores of 7-2 and 5-0 en route to a record 28-game winning streak that concluded their regular season.
“I think it took wind out of our sails to get beat by them twice pretty handily,” he said.
Meanwhile, Boychuk suggested that the team gave up some of its momentum after the successful first part of the season, which only became worse under the pressure of falling back into the playoff race.
“I think it just snowballed,” he said. “We had a good start to the year and were in first for so long, we got a bit complacent.”
When the team put together several good efforts with little to show for it, mounting frustration eventually culminated in some poor showings, including a 4-0 loss to Milwaukee on April 3 that was the first game of the team’s damaging 0-4-0 home stand.
“I think we took a couple of nights off late in the year, and that hurt us,” said Sanguinetti. “It’s a tough way to go out.”
“We showed a lot of passion in the last four games (on the road), but it’s disappointing to see that when we could have had it a lot more times during the year,” said Murphy.
Those problems were always quickly corrected, but as many pointed out, every game mattered.
“We went through some tough stretches but we always seem to bounce back,” said Daniels. “That was the character of this team with the way they cared and wanted to get there.”
Finally, there are the specific instances over the course of the season that stick out as being especially hurtful, especially given the fact that the Checkers only missed the playoffs by a single point.
Most players can point to one or two of those – be it Checkers goals that officials controversially disallowed, opposing goals that officials controversially allowed or some other break that went beyond the team’s control. Some, like Nash, took a more resigned approach.
“It’s hard to go back and play what-ifs, because there are so many games where we got points and maybe we shouldn’t have,” he said. “In the end, it all kind of counterbalances itself.”
That being said, there were a few instances that jumped out almost immediately as ones to remember if the situation turned out exactly like it did. Over the course of the season, the Checkers suffered seven regulation losses when leading after two periods – at least three more than any other AHL team. Four of those took place on home ice.
When everything was said and done, the Checkers, who had a positive goal differential in each of the first two periods, had a minus-22 goal differential in the third.
“If we would have had the passion that we did in the last four games (of the season) in those third-period games, we would be gearing up for the playoffs right now,” said Murphy.
Among those games, none stick out more than two home games against Houston near the start of the season. Despite leading 2-0 at the second intermission on Oct. 21, the Checkers allowed the Aeros to score three unanswered goals, including the regulation winner with just four seconds left. The very next night, Houston tied the game with 42 seconds left to steal a point, even though Charlotte salvaged both of its points in a shootout win.
As fate would have it, the Aeros were the one who captured the last playoff spot in the Western Conference, passing the Checkers at the season’s last possible moment.
Ed note: We'll have more in the coming days on individual players and a look ahead to next season.