Cruising through the heart of the regular season, the Checkers have clearly established themselves in the top tier of the AHL – if not at the very top of the league altogether. They returned to Bojangles Coliseum kick to off a six-game home stand leading into the Christmas break this week, riding a three-game winning streak and showing no signs of slowing down.
Game 1 – Hartford Wolfpack (NYR affiliate)
The Checkers began their game-action for the week with a Thursday night tilt against the Hartford Wolfpack. This is probably going to be one of the shorter recaps of the year, largely due to it not being that eventful of a game. The story of this one would be the penalty kill and goaltending duo of Alex Nedeljkovic and Callum Booth. The Checkers dominated the opening minutes of the game, with Ned making a few steady saves when called upon. Late in the period, Julien Gauthier took the first of two late-period penalties, as he boarded a Hartford player (who turned at the last minute, so not an intentionally malicious hit). The only two shots during the two minutes were taken by the Checkers. First, Patrick Brown had a big slap shot off a 1-on-1 rush that was padded away. Then Saku Maenalanen had a steal at the blue line that he chased down for a breakaway. Unfortunately, by the time he got to it and got it to lay flat off its edge, he didn’t have a ton of time to make a move. Alexandar Georgiev made a nice save on the attempted five-hole shot. Even though they couldn’t finish a shorty, the penalty kill was fantastic. Cliff Pu also deserves a shoutout for some fantastic work on the kill, shaving about 30 seconds off the clock in the early stages by winning a race, gaining possession, and killing time in the Hartford zone. Pu has proven to be a nice depth piece for the Checkers. I know it’s not exactly what we’re looking for, especially seeing what 53 is doing in Buffalo, but hopefully his offense will come around at some point. Upon returning to even strength, the Checkers had a couple nice chances. One came off a great play from Jake Bean, as he made two slick moves at the blue line then stepped into a good chance from the slot. Michal Cajkovsky then took another penalty with 30 seconds left. Ned made a big save as the period expired on a shot through traffic, but the period would end scoreless. The Checkers more than doubled up the Wolfpack on the shot board though, with a 13-6 count.
With 1:30 still to kill off to start the second period, the Checker kill came out and continued to put up a wall in the defensive zone. Then, about four minutes in, they would finally put a dent in the scoreboard. It started with probably the biggest save of the game, as Jake Bean lost his stick which led to a mini 2-on-1 in the Checkers’ zone. After a pass to a wide-open player in the slot, Nedeljkovic slid across and made a fantastic save, showcasing his athleticism and getting his arm to a shot that was headed top-shelf. Shortly thereafter, the Checkers got a nice cycling shift going, Gauthier did a good job of maintaining possession and got the puck to Dennis Robertson at the point. Robertson would work his way down the boards and fire a bad-angle shot that was perfectly placed to beat Georgiev glove side, over the shoulder. It was a pretty impressive goal from a player not known for his offensive abilities. The rest of the period was pretty even, back and forth hockey, but neither team was able to find the back of the net. Both defenses were pretty stingy and kept most the chances outside of the slot. Nedeljkovic made 17 saves at this point and was playing a very strong game. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t get the chance to finish it off.
To start the third period, Callum Booth led the team out onto the ice, and Ned was nowhere to be found. My first thought was an injury which would have been unfortunately-timed. As it turned out, he was pulled in because the Canes wanted him to possibly start the following night versus Washington and didn’t want him playing a back-to-back. I had an issue with this for a couple reasons. Item number one: he was two-thirds of the way through a shutout. I don’t know many goalies who like being taken out during a shutout bid. Two: he had already played two periods… Do they really think the third would have made any significant difference? And lastly… They didn’t call him up and play him! Those two previous points would have been moot had the kid been called up and given his first NHL start. He was undoubtedly informed of the possibility, got excited for the chance, probably sent out a text or two saying “I just got pulled from a game, it may be happening”… only to be let down. I understand starting Darling, who has been good against the Capitals in his ‘Canes career. Did they not think about that until game day or something, though? Otherwise, why pull a goalie in Charlotte if you have a goalie that you want to play in a certain match up? While it may not be as big a deal as I’m making it out to be, but I just don’t like the thought of jerking the young goalie around. Though he is young, he’s still a pro. Hopefully it didn’t have any effect on his psyche. I just find it unlikely he wasn’t at least a bit disappointed.
Anyway, back to the action. The third period was a grind-it-out, locked-down style of play from both sides. Callum Booth only faced six shots in the period, and turned aside all of them. Meanwhile, the Checkers only mustered three themselves. The Checkers penalty kill continued their fine work with two timely kills in the frame, and was a perfect 5-for-5 on the night. Even late in the period with the goalie pulled for an extra attacker, Charlotte wouldn’t give an inch. As further proof of this team’s dangerousness, they showed once again that they can win in any kind of game. Close-checking slug fests, high-scoring shootouts, and everything in between. Booth and Ned shared the shutout (meaning, statistically, neither of them got one) and did a great job staying focused on a night in which they did not see consistent action.
Game 2 – Hartford Wolfpack
Two nights later we would get a rematch between the two teams streaking in opposite directions. The previous game that had brought the Checkers’ win streak to 4 had simultaneously dropped Hartford’s losing streak to the same number. The Wolfpack were undoubtedly looking for an early spark to try and get back on track, and their captain would deliver before the crowd had likely even settled into their seats. Just 50 seconds in, Cole Schneider made a nice deflection on a point shot that looked to be going wide, beating Ned to the glove side. Nothing much anyone could have done about that one, but the Checkers were down early. Afterwards, the Wolfpack continued to push and look for another one, knowing that one goal was not even remotely enough of a lead on this Checkers squad. Nedeljkovic made some really solid saves in the upcoming minutes, including two pad saves off a quick 2-on-1 and rebound from Cole Schneider again. For about the first six minutes, the play was in the Checkers’ zone almost the entire time. Finally, they would begin to push back. Julien Gauthier showcased his skill as he so often does. He batted a down a pick from mid-air, then used his strength and reach to protect the puck and get to the middle for a solid chance. The shot was blocked, however. Then, Maenalanen made a gorgeous spin-o-rama pass through the seam between four Hartford players to Trevor Carrick, who tried to hit Geekie with a quick backdoor pass. This would be broken up at the last second, however. Then, Gauthier once again created something out of nothing, stickhandling through the neutral zone before nearly splitting the defense, but the puck was poked away just at the last second as he closed in on goal. Those three chances had the potential to be very dangerous, but the Hartford defense was doing a great job of recovering and helping out their goaltender. The Wolfpack were playing an extremely physical game as well, with Necas getting laid out twice in the first period, the second of which sent him directly to the bench after being slow to get up. He would not miss any time though, and luckily so as he would be the one to break the ice for the home team. When the Checkers got a late powerplay, Nedeljkovic made a poor decision trying to play the puck up the middle. Trevor Carrick ended up tripping the player who intercepted the pass in a dangerous area. This turned out to be a smart penalty that worked out well on a play that could have possibly made the score 2-0. Instead, Marty Necas would take advantage of the extra room during the 4-on-4, catching a nice lead pass just inside the blue line from Aleksi Saarela, then turning on the jets to burn the Hartford defense to the outside. He cut to the middle and deked to his backhand before shoveling the puck over the sprawling Georgiev. Charlotte certainly hadn’t played their best period, as Hartford had largely dictated the pace and held an 8-4 shot advantage. However, thanks to the late marker things were all square headed into the first intermission.
After the Saarela-Gauthier-Patrick Brown line had a really nice opening shift to the second period, the momentum looked to be shifting towards Charlotte. Unfortunately, Roland McKeown was whistled for slashing just two minutes in. During the powerplay, a very strange sequence resulted in a powerplay goal-against. Nedeljkovic went into the trapezoid to stop a dumped puck. After playing it up the boards, a Hartford player pretty clearly bodied him and knocked him to the ice. Watching the replay, it looks pretty intentional. Hartford’s Peter Holland lowered his shoulder right into the chest of Nedeljkovic, basically a textbook body check. While not thrown with significant force, it was blatant. Dan Renouf rightfully took exception to this and roughed Holland up a bit and… the ref decided to call that? That’s bad refereeing in my opinion. If you are going to allow a player to run a goalie, you shouldn’t call the retaliation unless it’s over-the-top. What Renouf did, basically just grabbing him and pushing him a bit, was not that. Worst case, you take both for coincidental minors. Another layer to this is that Holland lost his helmet in the little scuffle with Renouf. In the AHL (and most leagues other than the NHL) once you lose your helmet you are required to immediately go to the bench. Holland did not. The play, by rule, should have been blown dead when he skated to his position on the powerplay formation and stopped, facing the play. Ultimately, though, refs missing calls is a part of every sport, and you have to move on. The Checkers seemed more worried about what had happened than the ongoing play, and during the delayed call a point shot made its way through traffic and beat Nedeljkovic. The Checkers were livid, with good reason. Regardless, they had another deficit to fight back from, and a little over five minutes later they would do just that. Georgiev would make the save on a Michal Cajkovsky point shot, but Nicolas Roy corralled the rebound below the goal line and slid it back out front to Saku Maenalanen. Maenalanen would punch his fifth of the year past the Hartford goalie, and we were all square once again. It was a hard-working, gritty goal that the Checkers really needed. Andrew Poturalski would get whistled for a pretty weak offensive zone tripping call (read: dive) almost immediately thereafter, but Nedeljkovic and the Checkers killed it off relatively easy. At that point it felt like the Wolfpack’s luck may have run out. The Checkers were beginning to dominate at even strength, and Hartford had missed a big chance having been gifted yet another powerplay. There would be few chances each way the rest of the period. There was, however, some rough stuff. Nicolas Roy likely earned some fans, stepping in and sort-of-but-not-really dropping the gloves with a defenseman who crushed Necas (again). We would ultimately go to the third still deadlocked at two.
The third period started with the Wolfpack continuing to play a heavy, physical game. They took a high-sticking penalty less than a minute in, then their penalty kill unit started a very bruising sequence that left a couple Charlotte forwards surely sore. First, Andrew Poturalski was drilled in the corner (without the puck, really not sure how it wasn’t interference). The play eventually led to a heavy Trevor Carrick wristshot through traffic that hit the post. Georgiev covered the rebound, then Poturalski went back at the player who hit him. The period was certainly starting off with a bang. After Hartford returned to even strength, though, the game went back to a grind-it-out style. This certainly favored the visitors with all their size up front, as they have just two forwards under 6’0. Most of those guys are around 200 pounds as well. Charlotte by all means has the ability to play this way, but their bread and butter is their skill players. Hartford began to push, but Nedeljkovic was on his game on this night. He made some really timely saves in the third period, including flashing his quick glove hand on a shot through a heavy screen. Eventually, the edgy style of play of the Wolfpack would come back to bite them. Peter Holland (karma!) would take a roughing penalty after giving Julien Gauthier, who had nearly scored for about the third time this game just seconds before, a shot to the head behind the play. The Checkers powerplay went to work, moving the puck crisply around the zone. Nick Schilkey would get a gorgeous pass past two Hartford players and across the ice to Poturalski, who had plenty of room. Poturalski looked up, settled the puck, and stepped into a shot-pass along the ice that Nicolas Roy was able to tip by Georgiev. Thanks to some more great special teams work, the Checkers their first lead of the night with 9:36 to go. Soon after, Charlotte captain Patrick Brown would drill a Wolfpack forward right in front of their bench. To add insult to injury, he then dropped the brave soul who decided to step to him and challenge him to a fight. Good goaltending, a gorgeous goal, big hits, and fights… The period truly had something for every kind of hockey fan! Ultimately, the Checkers would lock it down the rest of the game, with Alex Nedeljkovic having one of his better games I have watched this season. Both of the goals were well-placed and through heavy traffic. Not to mention, one of which came after he had been knocked down behind the net and had to scramble back into place. It is hard to fault him for either. He made 27 saves on 29 shots, and the Checkers added another game to the win column.
Game 3 – Utica Comets (Vancoucer Canucks affiliate)
After a physical, hard-fought victory, the Checkers had little time to ice their bruises and rest up with a 1:00 faceoff the following day looming. The game also presented a bit of a step up in competition, as the Checkers had only faced one team (Springfield) in the top half of the standings in its respective division in the last 11 games. There is a significant amount of talent on the Utica roster, starting with a few big-time prospects. On D, they have the 2016 fifth overall pick in Olli Juolevi. Up front, they have Swede Jonathan Dahlen – infamous for being the player the Senators inexplicably traded for Alex Burrows. That trade already looks like a fleecing and Dahlen hasn’t even hit the NHL yet. In a couple years, it’ll be downright ugly. Behind them stands Thatcher Demko, one of the best goaltending prospects in hockey. Demko is a big kid with great reflexes and agility, and would certainly look the part of a star prospect in this game.
Saturday was a bit similar to the game on Thursday in that both teams played a sound defensive game and had huge performances from the goaltenders to boot. Obviously, this means offense was a bit hard to come by. In the opening period, each team managed just five shots, with Demko and Callum Booth both holding down their end. It very much seemed to be two teams feeling each other out, with lots of scrums along the boards, grinding shifts, and attempts to throw pucks at the net that resulted in easy blocked shots by the defense. There were actually four penalties in the period, and though the Comets have the fifth-best powerplay in the league (and a top-ten group for the Checkers as well), neither unit was able to light the lamp. The second period would see things open up substantially, though. The Checkers came out with a lot more speed than they seemed to have in the first, and they had a couple good chances early that Demko shut the door on. First, Aleksi Saarela made a great backdoor pass of a rush to Greg McKegg, but Demko showed his athleticism doing the splits and making a stellar sliding pad save. Then it was Utica’s turn to nearly put one home, as Booth gave up a juicy rebound off a slapshot. Luckily, Andrew Poturalski saved a goal by getting back to support his netminder, and cleared the waiting puck away from the crease. Soon after, though, Booth’s defense would put him in a bit of a bind, and the Comets would get on the board first. Nicolas Roy made a rare defensive miscue, misplaying the puck up the middle and basically giving Lukas Jasek a perfect setup pass right in front of his goalie. Booth was surprised and didn’t have time to come out and challenge the shot properly, and Jasek beat him under the arm to the blocker side. With over half a game to play, though, there was plenty of time for the Checkers to solve Demko.
As the period strung along, it started to become questionable whether they ever would solve the big San Diego native. The prototype for a modern-day goalie is plus size and athleticism, and Demko showed all night long that he has both in spades. Luckily, Booth has been showing he fits this bill as well. On this night he certainly was on his game, matching Demko shot-for-shot. The Comets had a powerplay shortly after they went up 1-0, and Booth made a gorgeous sliding blocker save on Tanner Kero after a shot was blocked and essentially led to a backdoor chance. The Checkers killed off the rest of the penalty kill effectively, then got back to work in the offensive zone. McKeown had a blast through traffic that looked like it was tipped, and Demko used his great reflexes to kick it away. Then, he made two massive point-blank saves on Julien Gauthier after Saarela had showcased his underrated vision and hands with a great pass once again, threading it two defenders. There were plenty of chances both ways, but both goalies were great in a wide-open period. Utica had 15 shots, with Booth giving up just the one goal. The Checkers had 13 shots themselves, but until the last seconds of the period, it looked like they were just running into a hot goalie and may be out of luck. The Checkers kept pushing until the buzzer, though. First, Demko made two ridiculous saves on Morgan Geekie, the second of which was a rebound that he used the back of his pad to rob at the last second what looked like a sure goal. They gave him no respite, though, as on the same shift Roland McKeown would hit Geekie, providing a great net-front presence, with a shot-pass that snuck past Demko. With just ten seconds remaining in the period, they had finally solved the Utica goalie.
The third period began seeking a resolution to the goaltending duel, but we wouldn’t find one in the frame. After a snoozer of a first and drag race of a second, we found something of a middle ground in the third. Steven Lorentz has played some good hockey in a depth role lately, and had a nice chance early. Demko was able to turn it away easily, though. Then, Booth made a really good save fighting off a shot through traffic from Evan McEneny, Utica’s leading scorer among defensemen. Right after that, he made yet another outstanding save. This time it was Dylan Blujus who was in the slot all alone, and Callum was able to flash the leather and glove the shot without a rebound. The Checkers would push back a bit, with Saarela and Gauthier’s line being the most consistently noticeable. That line would give the Checkers a great chance to end it in regulation, with Saarela getting a penalty shot with just under three minutes to play. A Utica player played the puck with his glove in the crease after their line had forced a turnover and led to a scrum in front of the net. Saarela walked in and ripped one low to the glove side, but Demko kicked out the pad and made a really tough save on one of the best shots in the minors. The last three minutes would pass uneventfully, and the game headed to overtime.
Once we got to the extra session, it was over in a flash – it took one shot and 22 seconds to find the winner. Utica won the faceoff and regrouped in their own zone, but tried a stretch pass that Roland McKeown was able to knock away. The puck went to Saarela, who was quickly in on a 2-on-1 with Necas. Saarela got redemption and earned a well-deserved game winner in my opinion, as he was very dangerous – both passing and shooting – all night long. He did what he does best, walking in and firing one that got through the pads of Demko. After being a rock for his team all night long and frustrating the Charlotte offense, Saarela’s shooting talent won out when it mattered most. Booth played a phenomenal game, with just the one goal allowed on the defensive turnover. This game brought his save percentage on the year up to a stellar .924. For his 11-game AHL career, that number now sits at .931. This week ended with the Checkers riding a six-game win streak, and with three more home games to go on the current stand before heading back on the road.