For those looking to catch up on the Charlotte Checkers, this is part 1 of 2 recapping the first two weeks of 2019 for the Checkers. Check back in on Wednesday for part 2 that includes the most recent games.
Welcome to 2019!
The Checkers weren’t likely in a rush to close the book on 2018, a calendar year in which they went 49-22-6 – good for the most wins in the AHL. They would look to get ’19 started off right with a Canadian swing, starting in Toronto on New Year’s Eve (short recap can be found in the holiday edition). This weekend they headed to Belleville for two games before heading back to Toronto for the third leg of a back-to-back-to-back on Sunday afternoon.
Game 1 – Belleville Senators (Ottawa affiliate)
To kick things off, the Checkers were a bit shorthanded and coming off a bit of a downswing, having lost four of their last six (though they did get points in 2 of those with OTL’s). This game was a bit of an oddity, as the Checkers only dressed 17 players. Janne Kuokkanen was out with an illness; Martin Necas sat out as he had just gotten back from the World Juniors; Josiah Didier and Spencer Smallman were out with injuries; and recent additions Haydn Fleury and Bobby Sanguinetti were not yet deemed ready to play. Sanguinetti is entering his second stint with the organization, as the former first round pick of the New York Rangers played 127 games with Charlotte – in addition to 40 with Carolina – between 2010-2013. He last played in the Swiss-A league last season, posting 11 goals and 18 assists in 46 games. Belleville has been hit seriously hard by injuries as well, though, so the relative lack of bodies did not put the Checkers at a serious disadvantage in this game.
The Checkers came out looking fresh and ready to play after their four-day layoff. Just two minutes in, Nick Schilkey was able to force a turnover at the Belleville blue line and made a quick feed to Patrick Brown. He ripped one past Filip Gustavsson glove-side for a 1-0 lead. After an extended stretch of giving up multiple goals and facing early 2-3 goal deficits, it was a big lift from the captain to allow the team to play from ahead for a change. The Checkers went right back to work and carried much of the play in the early stages. Aleksi Saarela made a notably slick play in the neutral zone off a breakout, neatly chipping the puck past a pinching defenseman ahead to Poturalski, who returned the favor as Saarela flew up the ice to beat his mark to some open space. Saarela corralled the pass in the attacking zone and unleashed one which Gustavsson turned aside. The Checkers could have had a couple early, but the Belleville netminder kept the deficit at one. We continued to get good action throughout the early stages of the period, a really fun brand of hockey to watch. The last half of the period saw action really tilt toward the Checkers’ end, as Belleville was able to push back a bit after it had been all Charlotte early. Luckily their netminder was locked in during this game. The visitors ended up being outshot 14-6, and I’m pretty sure they had about 5 of those 6 shots in the first five minutes. Nedeljkovic was up to the task on each Belleville chance, though, and the Checkers maintained their 1-0 lead heading to the second.
As Trevor Carrick took a late tripping penalty, the Checkers began the second with a bit over a minute of shorthanded time to kill off. They did a great job of not giving up much until just about the moment they returned to even strength came out of the box. Max McCormick had a one-timer from the right circle that was headed top shelf to Nedeljkovic’s blocker side, but Ned fought it off. It was a pretty impressive save, as he had to cross his crease and the momentum carried him away from the shot which was going back to the far-side post. Ned did a great job of not over-committing, getting square and staying upright to make the save. Then, a Belleville player beat a flat-footed Dennis Robertson to the outside. As the forward cut to the middle he tried to catch Ned leaning and go short-side, but the keeper made a pretty glove save while doing a (possibly unnecessary) two-pad stack. Play began to even out a bit after this, and two players stood out to me a bit during this stretch. One of them was Steven Lorentz, who spent most of this year in Florida of the ECHL. He has decent size and solid speed to along with it, and plays a physical game. He made a couple plays in the corners to win possession in both ends, showcasing a solid 200-foot game. He reminds me a bit of Clark Bishop, a guy that doesn’t have a ton of offensive talent but plays hard and annoys the heck out of the opposition. The other noticeable player was Jake Bean, and this time it was for reasons he’s not necessarily known for; he was doing a great job of managing pressure in his own end and working the puck up the ice. Belleville has some big, physical forwards who play hard in the corners, and Bean was able to avoid big hits and weave his way out of trouble in really impressive fashion a few times. We know about his ability to make plays offensively with the puck, but we’re beginning to see his defensive game take some nice steps as well. He is taking an extra second with the puck when necessary, and does not get sped up in the face of pressure and physicality. This is very encouraging after he made some costly mistakes in a few earlier games when pressured. The young defenseman is in a good place in his development.
Midway through the 2nd period, we finally got a little more action on the scoreboard. After Ned had bailed the Checkers out multiple times to keep them ahead, Julien Gauthier rewarded his goaltender with a little insurance on the powerplay. The Checkers were doing a great job of moving with and without the puck to put stress on the Belleville box, as Gauthier carried it behind the net and up the wall before passing the puck to Jake Bean at the point. Bean walked to the middle before dishing back to Gauthier, who was now at Bean’s vacated point position. The Belleville defense was slow to rotate, giving Gauthier just enough room to walk in. He then wired one through a heavy screen, perfectly placed just under the bar to Gustavsson’s glove hand. I could go on and on about this goal, it was gorgeous execution on many fronts. Great shot by the Gaut (that doesn’t really look like “goat” does it? That’s what I was going for. Oh well). Belleville would then push back again, starting with a Paul Carey chance in tight that Nedeljkovic made yet another solid save on. Ned stayed tall in the crease, keeping the top of the net covered, then made another tough save through traffic during the same play. Soon after, Belleville would finally find a way to solve him. McKeown joined the offensive rush on the play, but no forward identified the situation and stayed back to cover for him. After a turnover just inside the Belleville line, a stretch pass sent Max McCormick in on a partial breakaway (though it looked like he may have been offside, there is no challenging in the AHL). Jake Bean made a bit of a mistake, turning as if defending a 2-on-1, even though Cliff Pu was going to beat the second Belleville forward back. McCormick took advantage of the clear path to the cage. He walked in and wired a pretty snipe of his own to Ned’s blocker side, drawing the home team back within a goal. Immediately after that, Belleville had possession in the Checkers zone, and the defense seemed to go to sleep. A Belleville defenseman was allowed to walk in unchecked, and an easy seam pass left him 1-on-1 with the Charlotte goalie. Nedeljokvic came out, challenged, and fought it off for a huge, timely save to keep the Checkers ahead. Shot after shot continued to come in, but Ned was tracking the puck superbly all night long. He finally settled it down and got his team to regroup and take a breath. Belleville clearly had big-time life after drawing within a goal, and at this point the Checkers had to feel lucky to be in the lead.
Shortly after that shift with Ned’s three huge saves, Poturalski would make a fantastic play in the neutral zone to turn the puck over and catch the Belleville defense pressing and getting a little impatient looking for the equalizer. After picking his man’s pocket, he shot off like a cannon. With just two quick steps he accelerated away from the crowd and was in for a 2-on-1 with Aleksi Saarela. He looked like he was shooting all the way, but at the last second laid off a gorgeous saucer pass. The dish went perfectly over the diving Senator defenseman and landed right on Saarela’s tape, who then made no mistake. He deposited the beautiful pass to give Charlotte a little insurance once again, with just under two minutes to go in the middle frame. Belleville had really built some momentum and carried a lot of the play to that point, only to suddenly find themselves down two yet again. Nicolas Roy extended the lead to three 1:15 into the third, banging home a rebound from a Roland McKeown shot. The game was then all but over. Charlotte gave up very little the rest of the way, and on a night in which Alex Nedeljkovic was red-hot it was more than enough. Jake Bean got his second assist of the game on the Roy tally, and Pat Brown had an assist in addition to his opening goal. Nedeljkovic was probably Charlotte’s best player, though, earning the win with 30 saves on 31 shots. The New Year started in a familiar fashion, with a convincing Charlotte W.
Game 2 – Belleville
The Checkers added some reinforcements in the lineup the next evening, with Martin Necas, Janne Kuokkanen, and Haydn Fleury (seeing his first action since his concussion on December 13) all inserted into the lineup. Zack Stortini and Steven Lorentz were relegated to the press box along with Sanguinetti, as the Checkers dressed 7 defensemen and 11 forwards. The game got off to a bit of a rocky start when a scrum in front of Scott Darling led to an easy punch-in from Adam Tambellini just 21 seconds into the game. That lead didn’t last long, though, as some odd bounces started to pile up. Just 16 seconds after Tambellini’s opening goal, Andrew Poturalski dumped the puck into the Belleville zone. It took an odd carom and went right through the wickets of Belleville goalie Jake Paterson and in front of the vacated cage, where Aleksi Saarela was waiting to tap in one of the easiest goals he’ll ever score. A strange 37 seconds in, and each team had already impacted the scoreboard. The crazy opening wouldn’t end there. Three minutes later, the puck seemed to start bouncing on Martin Necas while exiting his own end. He tried to lay one off for Aleksi Saarela, but when he couldn’t corral the spinner Belleville had a 3-on-1 the other way. Haydn Fleury made an outstanding play to break up the backdoor pass, but recent signee Derek Sheppard again had trouble with the bouncing puck and failed to clear. Darling made a phenomenal save on the ensuing backdoor pass, but Max McCormick was able to get his own rebound, wrap the puck around the net and back out front, and find a waiting Filip Chlapik for an easy tap in. It was a shame Darling didn’t get a chance to settle down and enjoy what was a really nice save, but before he could it was 2-1. Charlotte would answer right back yet again, though. Nick Schilkey dumped the puck and got in on the forecheck, forcing a turnover. The Belleville defense got puck-focused and left Morgan Geekie wide open, and Schilkey got it to him with a quick feed out front. Geekie’s backhander got through the legs of Paterson, and Charlotte had its second goal on its second shot. Geekie has looked like a different player lately, much more active and assertive than he had been in his prolonged slump. If he can maintain a semblance of consistency and not bounce back and forth between great play and being excessively quiet, he can be a real asset for both Charlotte and eventually Carolina down the road. This goal chased Paterson just 4:21 into the game, and Filip Gustavsson would see the Checkers for the second straight day.
The scorekeeper was finally able to take a breath after this early action, as the rest of the period went by without a scoring change. After the crazy start, we would get about 26 minutes of game action with the score still even at 2-all. The Charlotte penalty kill would play a big part in this, as Julien Gauthier got whistled twice for stick infraction calls in the opening frame. In the second, though, the big man would make up for it. Jake Bean and Haydn Fleury would both do a nice job shouldering their forecheckers away, then Nicolas Roy was able to gain possession in his own end and spring Gauthier with a nice bank pass out to the neutral zone. Gauthier dropped his shoulder, beat his defenseman, and went to his forehand before shoveling the puck past Gustavsson. His second goal in as many games was an impressive display of his speed, hands, and power, and it gave Charlotte its first lead of the night. Kuokkanen had the secondary assist in his first game back from his sickness. Just two minutes later Andrew Poturalski got in on the action, as he continues to be Charlotte’s most consistently productive player. A Belleville defenseman had walked the puck along the offensive blue line looking for a shooting lane, but lost an edge as he backpedaled. Geekie was in position to jump on it for a near-breakaway, but the other Belleville defenseman did a nice job cutting off his lane. Geekie got in tight, delayed, protected the puck, and spun and dished back in front to Poturalski. The University of New Hampshire product had an easy tap-in to make it 4-2 with 7:26 to play. The chances settled down again after the quick burst of two goals, and we headed to the third period.
Charlotte came out in the third and pushed hard from the very first shift, starting with a solid shift from the trio of Poturalski, Gauthier, and Saarela. They didn’t get any great chances, but controlled the puck and kept the Sens hemmed in to their own end. After Belleville pushed back with a couple good chances that Darling turned aside, Martin Necas showed he hasn’t missed a beat since returning from the WJC. Cliff Pu walked into the slot, looking like he was going to fire one from a dangerous area, but made a great pass at the last second to Necas on the far side. Necas one-timed a rocket while falling down past a diving Gustavsson, extending the Charlotte lead to 3. Julien Gauthier then took his third penalty of the game – his second hook, in addition to a high-stick – giving Belleville a chance to get back into it. Darling made a couple nice saves, looking very calm and collected in the net. The Checkers killed it off without much issue, then began to clamp down and keep everything to the outside. Late in the game, Belleville got one back. Darling made a really good sprawling save on Raleigh native first-round pick Logan Brown, but Stefan Elliot was in the right place at the right time to put an easy rebound goal into the empty net. The Checkers still led by two with as many minutes left on the board, though, so no reason for panic. When the Senators won the ensuing face-off, Gustavsson immediately raced to the bench for the extra attacker. This backfired, though, as Belleville unsuccessfully rimmed the puck around the boards. Darling came out and chipped the dump to Saarela, who made a nice play getting it by the forecheckers and onto Julien Gauthier’s tape. Gauthier lifted the puck from his own blue line and into the dead center of the empty cage for his second of the game, sealing this one just 11 seconds after Belleville got a glimmer of hope. Poturalski, Saarela, Geekie, and Necas all registered a goal and an assist apiece. Darling had a solid performance as well, even though 20 saves on 23 shots doesn’t jump off the page (plus his assist on the Gauthier ENG). None of the three goals were attributable to poor execution on his end. The Checkers got it done, and headed to Toronto for the final leg of their 3-in-3.
Game 3 – Toronto Marlies (Maple Leafs affiliate)
The Checkers ended their Canadian road trip back in Toronto, looking to avenge their overtime loss from 6 days prior. This game would be a bit of a contrast from the previous night’s. Unlike the Belleville game, which featured quite a few lulls in the action without either team able to generate much offense, we got pretty wide-open action and plenty of chances on each side throughout the game. The lopsided final score didn’t reflect how evenly matched the game was, but the Checkers came out and took care of business. After some good action and a few good saves by Ned early, Trevor Carrick got the scoring started off. He started the play with a nice pinch at the defensive blue line, breaking up the Marlies’ attack. Kuokkanen was able to get to the puck and send Carrick on a partial breakaway, and he beat Kasimir Kaskisuo five-hole for a 1-0 lead just a bit over 8 minutes into the game. Next up, it was Andrew Poturalski getting on the board once again, extending his point streak to five games. Dan Renouf did a good job of getting his shot through heavy traffic, and Poturalski got in for a greasy rebound goal. The Marlies pushed back on the next shift, but the Checkers did a great job of keeping the attack mostly to the perimeter. Nedeljkovic was steady when called upon, including a one-timer from the slot that he caught and hung on to. Then, with 3:36 left in the opening frame, the sequence that was probably the story of this game unfolded. First, Roland McKeown got caught sleeping. Dmytro Timashov ended up in alone on Ned, and McKeown took him down for a penalty shot. I thought it was debatable whether he was actually in the clear, but it was called nonetheless. Timashov came in wide, faked a shot, and deked to the backhand, but Nedeljkovic read it all the way. There was absolutely no room for the shooter after he made his move, and Ned turned it away with ease to keep the lead at two. Less than two minutes later, Frank Corrado took a tripping penalty, and the Checkers would not miss their opportunity. They had a fantastic powerplay, nearly scoring a couple times, including a tic-tac-toe play to Saarela that clanged the post. Shortly thereafter, with less than a minute to play in the period, Necas would make a gorgeous saucer pass from the half wall to the far point to Julien Gauthier. The big power forward stayed red hot, stepping in and rifling one bar-and-in for his fourth gorgeous goal in three games. Just like that, even after a pretty evenly matched first period (Toronto actually held the shot advantage, 12-10), the Checkers headed to the dressing room with a 3-0 lead.
The Marlies came out and pressed quite a bit to begin the second, but Ned stood tall in the crease. Nick Schilkey, who has become a core part of this team but is mostly known for his offense, showed he’s a 200-foot player with a clutch defensive play in this sequence as well. Toronto had maintained possession for an extended stretch and had multiple shots on goal, the last of which saw the rebound go right to former 6th overall pick Sam Gagner** (see note below this paragraph for a quick off-topic sidebar on Gagner, if interested). Schilkey did a fantastic job of not losing the weakside forward and helping out his defense and goaltender, getting back and stick-checking Gagner so that he couldn’t get a shot off. Ned covered, and the threat was dissolved. Shortly afterwards Schilkey nearly scored one himself, but Kaskisuo made one of his best saves of the game on his point-blank blast. That may have been Charlotte’s only shot of the first eight or nine minutes of the middle frame, as it went back to being all Toronto afterwards. The Checkers were hemmed in for extended periods and the Marlies did a good job of getting traffic to the front of the net, but Nedeljkovic tracked the puck extremely well. His rebound control was excellent at this stage, kicking everything to the corners, nothing out front.
** As a side note, I was slightly surprised to see Sam Gagner in the AHL. The guy is only 29 and had 84 points in 162 NHL games the last three seasons, including a career-high 50 points just two seasons ago with Columbus. I find it hard to believe no NHL team could use that kind of production, better than 0.5 PPG, from a guy that can be moved all over a lineup… To be honest, he’s the kind of skilled, versatile player that I wouldn’t hate seeing somewhere in the Canes’ bottom-six. He’s not exactly Ovechkin or someone that I think should get a chance next to Aho if they were to get him, but I really think he could be a nice source of secondary scoring.
After shutting those plays down, the Checkers finally got some momentum going back the other way. First, Saarela and Necas had an impressive shift, showcasing their speed and skill while moving the puck through the neutral zone and possessing it on the attack for an extended period. They were really fun to watch together. Then, Gauthier came calling looking for another marker, making one of his outside power moves before going under the defenseman’s stick and nearly punching it past Kaskisuo. The Finnish netminder made a positionally sound save on that one. The score would not change until the 4:27 mark, as Necas recreated his goal from the previous night. Three Toronto defenders converged on Andrew Poturalski as he skated the puck wide in the offensive zone. This led to an easy feed to Jake Bean in the slot, who then had a mini-2-on-1 with Necas. Bean hesitated, stickhandled for a moment to freeze the defense, and dished to the Czech forward. The ensuing one-timer while falling to the ice was pretty much a spitting image of the goal the night before, and the game was all but wrapped up heading into the third period. Morgan Geekie would add another one early in the third (his 10th point in 10 games), impressively batting a saucer pass out of midair off a pass from Zach Nastasiuk. That score of 5-0 was how the game would end. Nedeljkovic was downright spectacular in this one, turning aside all 35 of the shots he faced. He consistently showcased his athleticism but did so in a calm, quiet way. Ned tends to get in trouble when he gets erratic and overaggressive, and this was the kind of game that shows he still has legitimate NHL potential. It was a complete effort from the Checkers, and a great ending to an impressive 3-0-0 week to kick off 2019.
Players (goals-assists-points, through 38 games played)
Andrew Poturalski – 15-23-38
Janne Kuokkanen – 11-18-29 (36 GP)
Aleksi Saarela – 11-16-27 (36 GP)
Martin Necas – 9-17-26 (28 GP; had 1-3-4 in 5 GP at the WJC)
Nicolas Roy – 11-13-24 (31 GP)
Greg McKegg – 6-17-23 (31 GP)
Jake Bean – 5-18-23
Trevor Carrick – 6-16-22
Morgan Geekie – 11-8-19
Julien Gauthier – 11-8-19
Roland McKeown – 2-15-17
Patrick Brown – 8-8-16
Nick Schilkey – 5-9-14 (26 GP)
Cliff Pu – 1-3-4 (32 GP)
Alex Nedeljkovic – 17-5-2, .901 SV%, 2.72 GAA (pretty nifty 64 saves on 65 shots this week)
Scott Darling – 5-2-1, .889 SV%, 3.06 GAA
The Checkers still sit atop the AHL, with a pristine mark of 27-8-3 (57 points). The Bridgeport Sound Tigers (21-11-4) are second, and that gap of 9 points between #1 and #2 is equal to the gap between the #2 and #16 teams in the AHL. To say they have been dominant would be quite the understatement. Regardless of what happens in Raleigh this year, it’s hard not to be greatly encouraged by what’s happening about two and a half hours west.