With the first half coming to an end, Charlotte looked to put an exclamation point on their stellar first half. They closed with two division rivals on the road, visiting Providence and Hartford for a weekend back-to-back. These games felt a bit big, as the team looked to get back on track after back-to-back losses and a rough showing in their most recent game. At the bottom, I will also cover the AHL skills competition, as Andrew Poturalski, Trevor Carrick, and head coach Mike Vellucci all headed to Springfield to take part in the event.
Game 1 – Providence Bruins (Boston affiliate)
After jumping out to a 2-0 lead less than six minutes into the game, the Checkers yielded four consecutive goals and eventually fell by a score of 5-3. With Ned just having returned from his first NHL win, Callum Booth got the start and struggled (although all the goals he allowed would have been quite tough to stop, for any goalie) giving up three goals on 10 shots before being pulled early in the second. Scott Darling faced the same amount of shots, and made one more save. On a night the defense was stern, allowing just 20 total shots on goal, and the team managed three goals (Bill Peters’ joke here, anyone?), they just couldn’t get the save or two they needed to pull off the W. There were a few notable performances nonetheless…
- Jake Bean – The young blueliner registered his first AHL multi-goal game, and continues to look excellent on a pretty consistent basis. Just 1:16 in, he picked a great spot to step up in the offensive zone. After finding the soft spot behind the Providence defense, Andrew Poturalski found him with a slick pass and Bean rifled a one-timer just under the crossbar. Then, in the third with Charlotte trailing by 2, he gave his team a lifeline by once again slipping into some open ice in the slot and banging home a pass from Nicolas Roy from below the goal line. Bean continues to get better and better as the season goes on, which is saying something since I’ve been impressed from pretty much his first game. His offensive instincts are phenomenal, and I can’t wait to have him (and Adam Fox…!) quarterbacking the Canes’ powerplay.
- Steven Lorentz – I’ve talked about Lorentz a few times in this series, and continue to think he adds some really solid bottom-six depth to this talented lineup. He’s big, skates reasonably well, and plays a simple north-south game with a bit of an edge. He scored his first AHL goal by crashing the net and tipping in a centering pass from Zach Nastasiuk to put the Checkers up 2-0 early. In my opinion it is doubtful that he has much of an NHL future as things stand, but as a 7th round pick the fact that he even signed a pro deal is a legitimate accomplishment. You can never fully count out these types of players, ones who know their identities and stick to them, work their butts off, and display a little versatility in their game.
- Special Teams, Playing a Huge (and Negative) Role, Again – We spoke about the powerplay’s struggles last week, and tonight it was even worse. Three opportunities are not a significant amount, and not scoring on them in itself isn’t damning. However, when you add to that a shorthanded goal against, plus it’s exacerbated by the penalty kill allowing another on one of only two penalties taken all game, it starts to sting a bit.
- New Territory (once again, not in a good way) – Under the rule of a streak being at least three, this – remarkably – is the first time all year the Checkers have gone on a true losing streak. Being without two leaders in Janne Kuokkanen (injury) and Trevor Carrick (suspension) obviously plays a role in this. Nonetheless, with just one game before the break, I believe this team is getting a few days off at a pretty good time. There have been a few concerning trends popping up of late, such as this being the fourth straight game the team has allowed at least four goals, and with so many young players the grind of the long hockey season inevitably takes its toll. Hopefully the Checkers can put forth a strong effort tomorrow night, then take a few days to recharge their batteries and gear up for the stretch run.
Game 2 – Hartford Wolfpack (New York Rangers affiliate)
To finish off the first half, the Checkers looked to get back on track against a Hartford team they’d already taken 4 of 5 from on the season. They would jump out to an early lead thanks to Andrew Poturalski. Hartford would tie it up soon after, but this time the Checkers rebounded to bury three straight markers and take a commanding 4-1 lead into the third. Nedeljkovic made his return (along with Haydn Fleury as the organization tries to get the two of them as many reps as possible with the Canes on their own break) and stopped 18 of 20 shots in the 5-2 win.
- Andrew Poturalski – recently named the fill-in for Kuokkanen at the AHL All-Star Game, he put on a show to close out a wonderful individual first half. He opened the scoring by catching a pass from Aleksi Saarela right in front of the net, catching the goalie moving side to side with the pass, and tucking it around him for an early 1-0 lead. He wouldn’t stop there, adding two assists later in the game for a three-point night. With four points on the week, Poturalski jumped up to 3rd in the AHL in scoring.
- Haydn Fleury – one of those Poturalski assists was to.. *checks notes*.. Haydn Fleury..? He got Haydn Fleury a goal!?!? Call him up, now. In all seriousness, Fleury looked really steady and confident. His goal was beautiful, as he showcased his fantastic skating for a big d-man. He collected a pass from Poturalski along the half-wall, wheeled all the way around to the opposite side of the offensive zone, then stepped slightly towards the middle and roofed a great shot over the shoulder of Alexandar Georgiev. With the de Haan signing and Hamilton trade this summer, it’s got to be a bit frustrating that the Canes defense really has no room for the youngster anymore. It goes to show – not that this is exactly newsworthy – just how truly impressive the defensive depth is in this organization. A 7th overall pick that has played pretty well for the most part, even despite the zero goals, is stuck in the AHL. With Bean and presumably Fox on the way, you have to wonder if Fleury may be being dangled as a sweetener in the quest for another top-six forward. It’s shame for him to be on the outside looking in on the organization he was drafted by, but I still think the 22-year-old has a bright NHL future ahead.
- Aleksi Saarela – The Finnish sniper stayed red hot with two goals in this game, adding an assist for the other three-point night on the evening. I seem to be talking about him every week here, so this may sound like a broken record, but his first of the night was an outstanding display of his speed and wicked shot. He started the play by racing to his defensive zone on the backcheck to break up a 2-on-1. It seemed like he took about four strides and -ZOOM- he had caught up to negate the odd-man rush. Nedeljkovic still had to make a big save, but Morgan Geekie chipped the rebound to Saarela who quickly took it right back the other way. He broke down the left wing and wired a gorgeous snipe over the blocker-side shoulder of Georgiev, chasing the Russian netminder from the game. He added his second on an empty netter to seal it, and had the earlier assist on the smooth look to a wide-open Andrew Poturalski point blank in front of the Hartford cage. Again, hate to be repetitive, but I’m awfully excited about this kid’s progress the last two years.
- Jake Bean, 4th in 4 – One player who may not want to take a break right now is the red-hot 20-year-old blue-liner. With just 10 seconds left in the first period and the score tied at one, Martin Necas flew into the Hartford zone for a great chance. The shot was padded away by Georgiev, and the defenseman tried to ice the rebound, but Bean did a great job of corralling the clearing attempt at the blue line. He took a step in and whipped a wrister underneath the goalie’s glove for his fourth goal in four games. After Charlotte scored early but relinquished the lead soon after, and considering the way the game unfolded from here, this kind of seems like the turning point in the game. All the momentum was back in the Checkers’ corner, and they would get a big lift and extend that lead in the second. Bean is having an outstanding rookie season as his numbers rank as follows (and, something to keep in mind, his teammate Trevor Carrick, who trails Bean in every one of these categories, was selected as an All-Star):
- Goals (9) – 1st among Checkers defensemen, T-7th among Checkers overall, T-1st among rookie defensemen, t-5th among all AHL defensemen
- Assists (20) – 1st among Checker defensemen, T-2nd among Checkers overall, T-7th among all rookies, T-2nd among rookie defensemen, T-11th among all defensemen
- Points (29) – 1st among Checkers defensemen, 4th among Checkers overall (a 20-year old defenseman is the fourth-leading-scorer on the best team in the AHL. Seems good), 1st among rookie defensemen, 10th among all defensemen, T-8th among all rookies
There’s some talent in this pipeline, folks. We juuuust might be good someday 😀
AHL All-Star Challenge Skills Competition
- Andrew Poturalski competed in two early events, the puck control relay and accuracy shooting. He was excellent in both. His trio would win the former and he would tie for third in the latter, hitting all four targets on seven attempts (the two winners did it in six attempts).
- Trevor Carrick competed in two events as well, starting with the rapid-fire shooting event. This challenge saw two players stand just between the hashmarks and simply go back and forth taking turns shooting on the goalies. The goalie success measured this event, as the team with the most saves won. Carrick and Colin McDonald combined for four goals on their 10 shots. Up next was the event with Carrick’s name all over it, something he has been known for since even before his 22-goal outburst in the OHL in 2014: the hardest shot competition. Carrick bombed a 99.4 MPH slapshot, which tied for third. I’m still a bit shocked about that, 99.4 seems pretty good. Greg Carey won the event with a blistering mark of 100.4 MPH.
- Both players took part in the breakaway challenge to close out the event. Although the East had a 10-7 lead heading in, they were soundly beaten here by a 10-4 count. The Eastern Conference, therefore, lost the Skills Competition by a score of 17-14. Poturalski tried a between the legs move and Carrick another big slapshot, but neither could beat San Jose Barracuda goalie Josef Korenar.
- The AHL All-Star Challenge will take place tomorrow (Monday) night at 7 PM. You can watch the game if you have access to NHL Network or the AHL TV app.
Charlotte Checkers statistics
Players – Goals-assists-points, through 46 games
Andrew Poturalski – 18-28-46
Aleksi Saarela – 15-19-34 (43 GP)
Janne Kuokkanen – 11-20-31 (37 GP)
Jake Bean – 9-20-29
Martin Necas – 9-19-28 (36 GP)
Nicolas Roy – 13-14-27 (39 GP)
Trevor Carrick – 7-19-26 (41 GP)
Morgan Geekie – 13-11-24
Julien Gauthier – 12-11-23
Roland McKeown – 2-18-20
Nick Schilkey – 8-11-19 (34 GP)
Patrick Brown – 9-8-17 (40 GP)
Goalies – W-L-OTL, save percentage, goals-against average
Alex Nedeljkovic – 21-5-4, .903, 2.65
Callum Booth – 4-1-1, .898, 2.53
Scott Darling – 5-5-1, .877, 3.48