11 points clear of the rest of the league and showing no signs of slowing down, the Checkers navigated a busy four-game week. To start, they played two early-week games against the closest team to them in the standings (at the time), the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. They then wrapped it up with a weekend back-to-back against a surging Marlies squad, winners of 5 of 7 coming in. These games, the last four of a six-game homestand, represented a tough test but still an opportunity to get even further clear of the rest of the league.
Also, since I’m still very new at doing this and finding my way a bit, I think I’m going to change this up. Four games are a lot to cover, and I’m not sure anyone wants to spend 20+ minutes reading detailed reports on each game. Therefore, I’m going to go with a bit more of a “spark notes” approach this week. If you’ve followed along with these articles, please feel free to let me know in the comments what you think, which format is better, or even any other ways in which you feel I could make this more enjoyable.
Game 1 – Bridgeport Sound Tigers (NY Islanders affiliate)
These two games were about as polar opposite from each other as could be. This first game saw the teams stray from identity a bit. Both of these teams score a lot of goals and give up a more than a few as well, with the Checkers ranking 14th in goals allowed while the Sound Tigers come in at 24th. Tuesday evening, though, it was all about the goaltending and defense, as the Checkers won a close-checking affair by the score of 1-0. Aleksi Saarela showcased a nice pair of mitts in close, backhanding one post-and-in over the glove of Chris Gibson for the only goal of the game. My takeaways:
- Special teams playing a huge role – At one point not too long ago, the Checkers had two top-five special teams units. The powerplay has struggled quite bit since then, including an 0-6 mark in this game. Those six opportunities to add some insurance are certainly an area for improvement, even though it did not end up coming back to bite them. With as much talent and as well as they move the puck, though, I do not think it’s too much cause for concern yet. I expect a the powerplay to heat up again soon. They did score PP markers in two games this week, but are still just 5 for their last 47 on the man advantage. Meanwhile, though, the penalty kill has held steady. They came in at a clutch 4-for-4 on the evening. The best chance that occurred while Bridgeport was up a man was probably off the stick of Patrick Brown, to boot, after a nice pass from Cliff Pu off a 2-on-1. Those two, along with Nicolas Roy, Nick Schilkey, Dan Renouf, Josiah Didier, Roland McKeown, and others, all deserve a lot of credit for being great when down a man this season. The Checkers kill sits 5th in the league at 84.3%.
- Team Defense – Shot blocking, physicality, and positional discipline were all superb in this game. Support from the forwards was notable too, particularly from Roy and Schilkey. Bridgeport got very little going in the middle of the ice and only registered 20 shots in the game, mustering just five in each of the first two periods. On a night when the offense didn’t get much going, Charlotte gave up even less.
- Nedeljkovic – The young goalie has been very good lately and that carried over into this game. He wasn’t tested much, but made a few big saves when the Checkers were shorthanded and held the fort in the third when Bridgeport made its final push. In 5 appearances (4 starts) between January 4 and January 15, Ned turned aside 134 of 140 shots. That’s good for a 1.27 GAA and .957 save percentage. This was his second shutout of the year, and franchise record 8th of his career. I’m extremely intrigued by his NHL debut. As I’ve said before, Nedeljkovic can be great when he stays calm and lets the game come to him. He can also get quite erratic and overaggressive. This is when the holes open up and pucks start leaking through him. While he does play the puck very well for a goaltender, he sometimes tends to overplay it which can lead to disaster. Most importantly, I think, Ned has a reputation as a big-game player dating back to his time in Juniors and at the WJC. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see him run with the opportunity in front of him.
Game 2 – Bridgeport
On the flip-side of that close-checking affair, the two teams made up for it by packing about two games’ worth of action into this one. Once again it was Aleksi Saarela breaking the ice early in the first. That would prove to be far from the end of the action in the opening period, though, as after Tanner Fritz tied it off a back-door pass about midway through the period, Charlotte tacked on three more (Schilkey, Carrick, Geekie) to head to the second period with a 4-1 lead. Bridgeport stuck around most of the game, cutting the deficit to 4-3 and later 5-4, but Schilkey’s second of the game and Poturalski’s penalty shot in the third period reinstated the two-goal cushion each time. The game would end with that score of 6-4.
- Aleksi Saarela – You guys may be tired of hearing me swoon over him, but man does he score some pretty goals. In this one, he blew by a defender, cut slightly towards the middle, and roofed one short-side over the shoulder of Jeremy Smith. He’s come up with some huge goals this year, and showcases his speed, shot, and hands consistently. He’s become a much less streaky player this year, piling up points and being one of the team’s most dangerous players on a seemingly nightly basis. He did end up missing one of the games against Toronto (sickness, not injury), but has at least one point in 15 of the 19 games he has played in since December 1st. Consistency and injuries have been two of the biggest questions surrounding the young Finn, and the progress he’s made in those areas is extremely promising.
- Big Games all around – Quite a few players played a huge part in this game, led by a four-point-night from Trevor Carrick. The AHL vet continues to be one of the best blue-line contributors in the league, and I still think he deserves a chance in the NHL. It’s unfortunate he plays in an organization where that opportunity just doesn’t really exist. Save for maybe his skating, I think he has a lot of tools that project to the bigs. Nick Schilkey (2 G, 1 A) also showed up significantly on the score sheet, and Morgan Geekie and Andrew Poturalski added multi-point games with a goal and an assist apiece as well. Schilkey continues to be one of my favorite players on this team, as you can probably tell from his consistent mentions in these articles. He does everything well at both ends. His first goal showcased his speed, beating the defense up the ice for a breakaway and finishing to the glove-side. The second was possibly the biggest of the game, getting his sneaky-good shot through traffic after the Sound Tigers had nearly staged a comeback. He was a great pickup from the college ranks for the organization as an undrafted free agent.
- Martin Necas – He’s looking really, really good. I think the mildly disappointing World Juniors may have given him a bit of a spark. Necas has clearly gotten comfortable and confident at this level. He didn’t have a big week on the score sheet, but his talent level is showing up every single night. He’s so fast and creative with the puck, and I think it’s only a matter of time before he gets another chance with the big cub. He still really needs to put on some weight as he takes some big hits and can get pushed off the puck easily, but there were multiple rushes throughout this game that were really exciting. Depending on what happens in Raleigh, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him before the year ends. Certainly if the Canes fall out of the playoff race, but maybe if the current roster goes a bit stale (McKegg?) and they need to find a spark after hitting a bit of a rut.
- Goalie stats can be misleading – I think we’ve seen this play out quite a bit with the Canes, as we all know Mrazek has been a lot better than his numbers would indicate. Ned was good again, even if 4 goals against never looks particularly pretty. In the first half of the first period he was under quite a bit of duress, but allowed just the one goal on a backdoor pass that probably should have been defended better by Bean and McKeown. Keeping the score at 1-1 early gave his team the needed lift to bust out for three goals in the latter stages of that period. The second goal was another seam/backdoor pass on the powerplay that he had no chance on as well. The third goal was off a rush and a perfect shot bar-and-in, and the fourth was after a great individual effort from the supremely talented Josh Ho-Sang that resulted in another great shot from the slot. I say all this to point out that none of them were really his fault. Ned’s playing fantastic hockey right now, and I hope he keeps it up to finish off the year. He could become a real candidate for the Canes’ starter’s crease in 2019-20.
- Resiliency! – This team really knows how to step up when the pressure is on. The Canes, all too often, melt under intense pressure when they get a lead and their opponent starts to push back. Really, what might the standings look like right now if the Canes had found a way to hold off some of the games they seemed to have in the bag and ended up blowing? I love how Charlotte has found a way to respond and not give up their leads all year long. Hopefully this is something that will carry over as these guys graduate to the big club. It almost seems to be a mental thing with the Canes, like they collectively go “oh, crap, here we go” when a 3-0 lead suddenly gets to 3-1 or 3-2. I’m hopeful that building this kind of identity in the system will go a long way.
Game 3 – Toronto Marlies (Maple Leafs affiliate)
With two wins in the bag, the Checkers welcomed Toronto to try and close out a very strong week. With Nedeljkovic getting called up to the Canes, Callum Booth got the nod between the pipes on Friday night. Clark Bishop made his return as well. Charlotte didn’t have its best performance, especially early, falling behind in the first and facing a multi-goal deficit by the time the third period came around. They continued to show that aforementioned resiliency, though, coming back to tie it on goals by Patrick Brown and Jake Bean. They would eventually fall in overtime by a score of 4-3.
- Callum Booth – If you’ve been keeping track of this series you know I’ve been pining for Booth to get back to the AHL for some time now. I think it’s ludicrous to have a goalie with NHL potential facing ECHL talent. Especially in this organization, one with next to no history of success developing goaltenders. Booth has been great when called upon for Charlotte this year, so he’s certainly had better games than this one, but I would not call his performance poor by any means. As a matter of fact, Booth started off great. Early on it was all Marlies. Booth was steady, making a great sliding save off a scrum out front while on the penalty kill, then soon after tracking and swallowing a breakaway chance in his midsection without a rebound. The first goal was off a deflection after a Charlotte icing. The second was off another powerplay on a shot from inside the circle that somehow leaked through him, the one that he probably wants back. The third goal saw his rebound control kick a puck right back to the shooter for a rebound marker, and the overtime winner was on a breakaway. As I said earlier about one of Ned’s games, four goals does not look all that great on the score sheet, but this game probably could have gotten out of hand early if not for Booth making some huge saves to keep Charlotte within striking distance. His size and athleticism shine brightly each time I see him, and I think he has a bright future ahead.
- Slow Start – this was clearly the deciding factor in the game. I alluded to it a bit in the last section, but the Checkers inexplicably did not get their second shot until there was less than 4 minutes to go – on a Roland McKeown slapshot from center ice. Toronto had double-digit shots and two goals already at this point, in addition to a couple good chances that missed their mark. The Checkers had not looked anything like their usual dominant selves. This may be slightly nit-picky since this team is the best in the AHL, but from a coach’s perspective there is always room for improvement. The Checkers pretty much dominated the rest of the game, as the final shot count was 34-25. Meaning they outshot Toronto 33-14 in the last 44 minutes of game action. It wasn’t enough. The Checkers had quite a few games recently where they faced multi-goal deficits early. Sometimes they were able to come back because this team is just so damn good, but other times, such as here, not so much. This is something that they need to shore up as we head down the stretch, and especially once we get into April and the postseason. You don’t want to sleepwalk through the first period of a playoff game and have to try and come back against a team that’s survived that long and is looking for a championship. Obvious as it may be, comebacks are not a recipe for sustained success.
- Clark Bishop – Bishop had the Checkers’ initial shot, the one that was their only shot for what felt like an eternity, and looked pretty good in general in his return. While he did not register any points, he had four shots and a +1 rating. He also showed he has no intention of easing in and playing timidly after returning from his injury, playing the body quite a few times. This included an early second period shift with the Checkers trying to get some momentum back in which he had two big hits along the boards. Bishop has not seemed to miss a beat, and was one of Charlotte’s best forwards in this game.
- Schilkey’s beauty, a late comeback – Just past the midway point of the game and with the team still needing a spark, Nick Schilkey came through yet again. It all started with a nice shot block in his own end, springing him on a breakaway the other way. He finished high glove just under the bar on Michael Hutchinson, who had been a wall to this point (Hutchinson is a veteran of 111 NHL games, and was one of the best goalies in the AHL between 2010-2014). This brought the very large crowd (Charlotte, like the Canes, has been drawing very nice attendance numbers of late) to life. After giving up a late second period goal that put the deficit back to 2, the Checkers came out for the third and went to work. First, Jake Bean finally cashed in on a powerplay, roofing a pretty one-timer from Kuokkanen top shelf on a 5-on-3. Then, just 3 minutes later, Patrick Brown had his own snipe off a rush to knot the score. The captain came through to ensure his team at least earned a point.
- Janne Kuokkanen – Kuokkanen was named an AHL all-star, but will apparently not be attending as he has been dealing with some injury issues. Andrew Poturalski will (deservedly) take his place. I kind of figured Kuokkanen was dealing with something, as he has clearly not been himself for some time now. He did register an assist tonight (and nearly scored, but with a high stick that was disallowed), but has just four points, all assists, in the last 11 games. He has not scored a goal since December 12. For reference, he had 11 goals and 27 points in his first 26 games this season. Charlotte has so much depth that it hasn’t hurt the team much, but to make a run at the Calder Cup they’ll need their best player to get back to 100%. Hopefully taking some time to rest over the break will remedy his ills, but this is something to keep an eye on moving forward.
Game 4 – Toronto
I kind of complained about the slow start in the last game that left them with a big hill to climb, but watching them fight back in that one to nearly pull it off was a heck of a lot better than this effort. The Checkers put forth quite a stinker on this Sunday afternoon tilt, looking tired, slow, and getting run out of the building by a 5-0 score.
- Offense? – This may seem silly considering in two of the games they scored 6 and 5, but by Charlotte’s standards this six-game home stand saw the offense dry up quite a bit. Their goal totals in the other four games were 1, 1, 3, and 0, with those accounting for Ned’s shutout, the previous game’s overtime loss, and two regulation losses. The Checkers only mustered 22 shots in this game, and Kasimir Kaskisuo really never faced much in terms of high-danger chances on his way to the shutout. Even including this game, Toronto has given up the sixth-most goals in the AHL (3.48 per game), so this certainly wasn’t a particularly encouraging performance.
- Scott Darling – He’s just not playing well at all. I think we’ve gotten to the point where the team just has no confidence playing in front of him. The recent results in his starts show as much. He was under fire all game, though, as the Checkers were outshot 37-22 and gave up double-digit shots in each period.
- Not much good to take from this one – The Checkers have had a couple of these showings lately. Perhaps it’s slightly understandable, being that there’s been a good bit of turmoil on the roster with McKegg, Bishop, Kuokkanen, Necas and others coming and going with injuries, call-ups, and so on. This is going to continue a bit the next two games, as the team will be without one of its leaders in Trevor Carrick after he was handed a suspension following a high-sticking incident in the third period of this game. The impressive thing is that they’ve shown a great ability to not let it snowball into a prolonged slump – this is only the fourth time all year they’ve lost back-to-back games. What’s more, only once have they lost back-to-back regulation games, meaning they at least got one point in the other three instances. I’ll be watching Friday night to see if the Checkers come out strong and quickly get going back in the right direction on the road in Providence.
Charlotte Checkers Statistics
Skaters – Goals-assists-points, through 44 games
Andrew Poturalski – 17-25-42
Janne Kuokkanen – 11-20-31 (37 GP)
Aleksi Saarela – 13-18-31 (41 GP)
Martin Necas – 9-19-28 (34 GP)
Nicolas Roy – 13-13-26 (37 GP)
Trevor Carrick – 7-19-26 (41 GP)
Jake Bean – 6-20-26
Morgan Geekie – 13-9-22
Julien Gauthier – 12-10-22
Roland McKeown – 2-18-20
Nick Schilkey – 8-11-19 (32 GP)
Patrick Brown – 9-8-17 (38 GP)
Goalies – W-L-OTL, save percentage, goals-against average
Alex Nedeljkovic – 20-5-4, .903, 2.68
Callum Booth – 4-1-1, .911, 2.21
Scott Darling (Ugh.) – 5-4-1, .880, 3.48