Welcome back! Hope everybody is staying warm and safe through this giant slush-fest. Last week, the Checkers finally hit a bit more spaced out chunk of their busy early-season schedule, with just two games over the course of the week. Friday was the first game they played since their big come-from-behind win over Providence last Sunday. This week, they finished off their current five-game road trip with games in Hartford Friday evening and Springfield the next night.
Game 1 – Hartford Wolfpack (New York Rangers affiliate)
For the second time in three games, the Checkers headed to the Whalers old home arena, the XL Center (formerly known as Hartford Civic Center) to face the ‘Pack. Once again, it was a wild game with a first period filled with goals. Hartford would get on the board first, as Scott Darling gave up a pretty weak goal. About 8 minutes in, defenseman Brandon Crawley broke up a rush and skated the puck into the Charlotte zone. Shortly after crossing the attacking blue line, basically alone against three defenders, he fired a wrister that may have been screened a bit by Dan Renouf. Darling got a glove to it, but it bounced over him and into the net. As we approached the 15-minute point of the period the scoreboard still read 1-0, and chances had been relatively hard to come by to that point with many turnovers and blocked shots. Things would change in a hurry, though. First, the Checkers would tie the score thanks to a great offensive-zone shift from Nick Schilkey, Andrew Poturalski, and Greg McKegg. Poturalski and Schilkey would both foil the Hartford breakout during the shift. On the second occurrence Schilkey hit Poturalski in the slot, who quickly sent a pass to a wide-open McKegg behind the scrambling defense. He made a quick move and tucked it past Alexandar Georgiev. Things opened up from there, as Hartford came right back with a counter punch. After winning a battle below the goal line, Hartford’s Tim Gettinger would skate the puck to one side of the net and reverse it to Peter Holland on the opposite side. Holland would walk out and roof a bad-angle shot that beat Darling, a bit slow to react and get over, short side over the shoulder to make it 2-1. Just 36 seconds after that, Jake Bean would make a similar mistake that I talked a bit about last week, trying to go up the middle on a breakout. This time, he was dealing with significant pressure, so while the pass may have worked effectively had it connected, he was harassed just enough to where the pass was tough for the recipient to handle. It ended up in the slot on an opposing player’s stick, and after Darling stopped the initial shot Cole Schneider tapped the rebound past him. Suddenly, the Wolfpack were up 3-1. It was a rough first period, or at least 95% of it was. For the Checkers, though? It was no problem. Janne Kuokkanen decided he didn’t like the way things had been going and in the blink of an eye turned the tide of the game. First, Necas hit Nicolas Roy who concluded a tic-tac-toe passing play by finding Kuokkanen with a backdoor pass which he finished with 25 seconds left. He didn’t settle for just that. Just 14 seconds later, the trio would enter the zone again. Roy dished to Necas, who made an outstanding drop pass through a defender’s legs and right into Kuokkanen’s wheelhouse. Janne would rip a one-timer that beat Georgiev low to the glove side and tie the game. This gave the Checkers a big lift heading to the locker room.
The second period came out with a much slower pace, with lots of stoppages in play and very little generated offense. The Checkers would then take the first penalty on a bit of a strange delay of game call when a puck was shot over the glass that seemed pretty clearly to be deflected. The Checkers 5th-ranked penalty kill would look sharp, though, as the best chance during the stretch was likely Cliff Pu’s rip off a shorthanded rush that just missed the cage. Nick Schilkey and Nicolas Roy in particular were fun to watch during this time, as they made sure nothing was clean or easy. This often forced the Wolfpack to resort to dumping the puck, which the Checkers would get to and clear without issue. This pretty much played into the theme of most of the second period, with both defenses playing sound hockey and giving up very little. The Checkers really weren’t especially sharp for most of this game, with the passing not nearly as crisp as we’re used to seeing, but the score remained tied a majority of the second. Then, after they finally started to get a little extended zone time from Patrick Brown, recent AHL call-up Steven Lorentz, and Julien Gauthier (who nearly scored during the delayed penalty), the Checkers would earn a powerplay and finally broke through. It took them all of 12 seconds to do it. After Hartford won the faceoff, Julien Gauthier exploded out of his stance (his acceleration and agility for a big man… Special.) and was the first to the puck in the corner. He got the puck to the point to Bean, who sent it D-to-D to Necas at the far side. Necas walked down to the circle and dished to Gauthier at the goal line who did a quick power move that was initially saved, but Nick Schilkey was able to crash the net and bang in the rebound to give the Checkers a lead. Georgiev wanted an interference call, but Gauthier was pushed into the net after his move, allowing Schilkey to finish into a mostly empty cage. With 4:09 to go in the second, the Checkers had their first lead. Just seconds later Hartford got a breakaway, but Darling made a huge arm save at a clutch moment, right after being staked to a lead. Then, the Wolfpack got another breakaway less than a minute later, and he surprised Cole Schneider who was attempting to deke with a poke check. These two plays were massive, because the Checkers would come up with some late-period magic again. Trevor Carrick would dump the puck in, and Necas would come hard on the forecheck and play the body on the defenseman attempting to corral the puck. This allowed Nicolas Roy to come in behind him and win possession. He walked to the middle and threaded a pass to the far point to Carrick, who stepped in and unleashed a massive slapshot that beat Georgiev cleanly to the glove side. Somehow Dan Renouf was credited with the secondary assist, but it should have been Necas – who already had three in the game – but I’m not sure he actually touched the puck. Regardless, with 16 seconds to go, the Checkers had a huge insurance marker headed into the final stanza.
As with the first two periods, the majority of the third saw the action slow down substantially for the first part of the frame, and then open up with scoring plays in the latter stages. Darling did make one nice pad save early in the period, when a Hartford defenseman pinched below the goal line and centered a pass that was punched in close for a great point-blank scoring chance. For the most part, however, the Checkers showed they have a very steady defense complimenting their explosive offense. They did a great job containing penetration to the middle of the ice, keeping Hartford to the outside for the few chances they did get. Geekie made a skilled play off a rush and nearly made it 6-3, as he received a great pass from Bean entering the zone, dragged the puck around a defender, and ripped one off the nearside post that had Georgiev beat. There were few chances otherwise until a Charlotte powerplay that nearly put with final nail in the coffin with just under 7 to play. Necas made a slick saucer pass across the zone to Geekie, who nearly found Gauthier back door with a pass that was slightly too hot to handle. Both Checker powerplay units would move the puck well and get some looks, as they usually do, but nothing would come of it. Regardless, this allowed the Checkers to possess the puck and shorten the game, as we were under 5 minutes to play when the powerplay ended. The Wolfpack then began their final push trying to chip away at the two-goal deficit. Steven Lorentz and Bean got a little puck focused and allowed Cole Schneider, Hartford’s captain and one of their best players, to get open in the slot. Darling made a really nice glove save on the ensuing chance. Then, Hartford pulled Georgiev with almost 3 minutes still on the clock, and Andrew Poturalski almost immediately made them pay. After chipping a puck out, Schilkey forced a turnover in the neutral zone. McKegg sent a shot from near the red line wide, put Poturalski was the first one to the carom and snapped it into the net to seal this one up with 2:31 to play. The Wolfpack would get a powerplay and get one back on a point shot through traffic, but the game was all but wrapped up already. Nicolas Roy would add yet another empty netter, and the game would end with that score of 7-4. Roy finished with three assists in addition to that goal, Necas had four assists (should have been five!), Kuokkanen two goals and an assist, and Poturalski, Schilkey, and McKegg a goal and an assist each. It was a fantastic performance from the top two lines, and the line with the three big prospects especially. Darling didn’t play a game I would call especially good, with two pretty soft goals allowed, but also made a couple sharp saves in big moments. He made 20 saves total. With that, the Checkers were off to Springfield.
Game 2 – Springfield Thunderbirds (Florida Panthers affiliate)
Whereas the previous night begun with a lull over the first few minutes of action, Saturday night’s game against Riley Stillman (yep, Cory’s son… even I feel old now) and the Springfield Thunderbirds started off with a bang. Springfield has the fourth best record in the Eastern Conference quite a few legit NHL prospects, led by Henrik Borgstrom. We had back and forth action and chances both ways almost immediately, and both goalies were forced to be sharp early. Darling made two good saves within the first 2 minutes, once on a two-on-one when Bean got caught playing up in the offensive zone, and once off a nice passing play that led to a point-blank chance from leading scorer Jayce Hawryluk. Gauthier then had a really nice play using his size and reach to get around a defenseman and hit Patrick Brown with a backdoor pass that nearly connected for a goal. Then, the top line of Roy, Kuokkanen, and Necas hooked up for a really nice play from all three members, as Roy hit Necas with a nice saucer pass through the neutral zone, and the Czech speedster did a fantastic job of corralling the airborne puck and also staying onside entering the attacking zone. He didn’t quite have the speed to split the converging defenders, but showed great awareness by pushing them back before dropping a pass to the oncoming Kuokkanen. Janne was able to use the crowd ahead of him as a screen and did a great job getting the puck through and on net, but Thunderbirds goalie Michael Hutchinson made a good stick save that the defenders were able to clear from the crease. Soon after, a parade to the penalty box began. First, Patrick Brown took a necessary penalty on what was nearly a breakaway, putting a very dangerous powerplay to work (Springfield is #3 in the AHL on the man advantage). The Charlotte penalty kill continued their phenomenal work. Darling made a good save without rebound on Anthony Greco, but otherwise was not tested much other than a few near-misses. Then, shortly after the penalty ended, Riley Stillman stepped up and nearly delivered a massive hit to Nick Schilkey, who was able to sidestep a good chunk of the blow. Trevor Carrick didn’t like it, though, and stepped up to drop the gloves. Stillman obliged. Carrick got a good number of solid right hooks in and eventually took him down to the ice. Herein lies part of the reason I love Carrick, even if I don’t think he has the NHL future I once hoped for him. He still has a huge shot that led to 22 goals his last year in juniors, and brings physicality and a willingness to drop the gloves. If the Canes get in a pinch, I don’t mind seeing him forced into action at all. The Checkers later had a 4-on-3 powerplay and a few good looks, one by Bean off a slick pass from Kuokkanen and the other by Poturalski, but the remainder of the period was scoreless thanks to some solid goalie play on both sides. Darling was solid, making 12 saves and controlling the rebounds well, while Michael Hutchinson turned aside the 7 he faced.
The second period saw a continuation of the solid pace from the previous frame, and the Thunderbirds would finally break the ice and get on the scoreboard. Just four minutes in, Jake Bean had two hard forecheckers bearing in on him and lost control of the puck. Springfield’s Jake Horton quickly grabbed the puck and slid it through Darling’s five hole for a 1-0 lead. It was “Teddy Bear Toss” night, so this led to thousands of thousands of bears being thrown on the ice, and a lengthy break as the ice was cleaned up. Once play (finally) resumed, the Thunderbirds took a quick penalty and the Checkers struck right back. Julien Gauthier and Martin Necas played catch before Necas hit Schilkey with a pass in the slot. After initially misplaying the puck, he quickly recollected it and rifled a well-placed shot over Hutchinson’s glove hand. After the score was quickly re-tied, the two teams again went back and forth in the deadlock with the goalies standing tall. However, late in the period the Checkers once again tested the Springfield powerplay. Roland McKeown got tied up with a man and took a tripping penalty, and with just under two minutes to play in the 2nd the Checkers trailed by a goal again. After killing the entire first half of the penalty without Springfield getting virtually any zone time, a quick breakdown led to a wide-open player in front of Darling. Michal Cajkovsky and Trevor Carrick both got caught on the strong side of the ice (where the puck was), and Anthony Greco crept in behind them and one-timed it far-side underneath Darling. That’s the way the second period would end, with Springfield leading 2-1.
With Darling pulled due to being called back up to Carolina, Jeremy Helvig was given the nod for the third period. It would be the 21-year-old’s first AHL action. Helvig is in his first professional season and had a phenomenal junior career with Kingston of the OHL. He is another big-framed netminder at 6’4 and 206 pounds and has been solid down in Florida of the ECHL this year. Early in the period, Necas made a fantastic move, getting a little space, building speed, and beating three defenders in the offensive zone before a point-blank chance. Hutchinson swallowed the low shot without a rebound, but Charlotte was buzzing. The same line had steady pressure on the following play, as Nicolas Roy nearly tucked in a rebound but Hutchinson came up huge yet again. The Checkers had taken six shot the first four minutes of the third, but were unable to find the equalizer. Finally, just past the 6-minute mark, it was Nick Schilkey again who found the twine. Greg McKegg intercepted a lazy backhand pass and quickly found a streaking Schilkey for a one-time slapshot. It was really more of a punch-shot as he didn’t get all of it, but it was perfectly placed and beat the sliding Hutchinson high to the glove side to even the score once again. Then, Zack Stortini took a slashing penalty that seemed a little weak, and the Charlotte penalty kill was back to work. Once again, the kill did a great job, but then one rush ended up in the back of the net with just five seconds remaining on the kill. Helvig seemed to be there, but Harry Zolniercyk beat him under his glove arm. Once again, the Checkers were staring at a third period deficit, with nine minutes to go. Sound familiar? With just under six minutes to play, Andrew Poturalski would take a huge check from behind, and Springfield’s Josh Brown would get called for a five-minute boarding major. For the first two minutes of the powerplay, the Checkers got absolutely nothing going as the Springfield forecheck constantly harassed the puck carrier and kept Charlotte in their own zone trying to break out for a good chunk of it. With two and a half minutes to go, Mike Velluci elected to pull Jeremy Helvig, taking a risk as the kill was able to shoot the puck the length of the ice without fear of icing. This would come back to bite them, as with 2:08 to go Anthony Greco would put one in from his own goal line. Springfield probably thought this was in the bag with a two-goal lead. Think this Checkers squad was done, though? Not a chance.
First, after Hutchinson made a phenomenal point-blank pad save on what looked like a sure goal from Gauthier, Necas corralled it and hit Bean for a one-time rocket from the point that made it 4-3 game, just as the Brown major penalty expired. It was a perfect shot, low to the blocker side. 55 seconds left, and it was a one-goal game again. With 35 seconds left, Springfield missed the vacant Charlotte cage by just inches from their own zone again. That one may have made for a task too tall for anyone. Alas, it was an icing, and Andrew Poturalski took advantage. As McKegg tied up his man on the draw, Kuokkanen came in to support him and got the puck to Poturalski at the point. Poturalski walked to the middle of the ice and unleashed a laser beam into the top corner. Once again, this team had fought back from the brink of a loss and sent the game to overtime. This team just never, ever quits. Shortly after the 3-on-3 commenced, Necas almost ended it with a gorgeous end-to-end rush where he walked around two players and had a partial breakaway, but was in too close to get a great shot off and Hutchinson kicked it away. Charlotte controlled the play the entirety of the session. Eventually, once Springfield looked like they were finally going to get possession in the offensive zone, Necas made a heady play to poke the puck off the opposition player’s stick, then flew the zone for a breakout pass and a 3-on-1. Necas gained the line, drove wide, and left a behind-the-back drop pass to Trevor Carrick who was then basically in on a 2-on-0. Carrick took it himself and ripped a wrist shot underneath Hutchinson’s arm for the game-winning goal, and once again, the Checkers had stolen a game in which they looked dead in the water. Schilkey and Necas led the way, with 2 goals plus an assist and three assists, respectively. Darling made 20 saves on 22 shots in his two periods of action, and Jeremy Helvig saved 7 of the 8 shots he faced and earned his first AHL win in his first appearance.
- Aleksi Saarela did not play this weekend with an injury. This is one aspect that the young Finn has battled with quite frequently over the course of his career. It’s a shame it came right now (not that there’s any time where an injury is welcome). Back in the very first edition of this series, I noted that he got off to a really slow start this season and assumed he would get it going before long, and he’d done just that. After producing just two points, both assists, in the first 8 games of the year, he had poured in 14 points (7 goals, 7 assists) in the last 16 games. Hopefully he comes back quickly, doesn’t miss a beat, and continues building on what has been a really solid season overall. Honestly, I’m hoping he continues to light it up at a comparable rate and earns a look in Raleigh at some point. I think his speed and sniping ability could be a welcome asset to the Canes in the not-too-distant future.
- Martin Necas is really starting to get comfortable. He had a ridiculous seven assists in the two games this weekend and you can see the confidence grow every single game. Some of the turnovers and mistakes from earlier in the season have turned into highlight-worthy plays, and he is going into the corners and dirty areas with authority instead of floating around the perimeter or outside the scrums. Necas has always displayed a willingness to hold onto the puck and be patient while looking for a play, which is a positive trait, but there always is a learning curve for a European kid transitioning to North America. The adjustment to the size of the rinks and speed of game play is significant. You do not have as much time to diagnose the play and make decisions. However, I think the light is turning on for the 19-year-old. He’s using his speed and done a great job lately of avoiding contact and drawing penalties because defenders can hardly get a hand on him. The only thing missing is the finishing, as he is taking a good number of shots that the goalies are seeing all the way and holding onto without issue. Regardless, I like where he is at. The NHL is another step up from what he is facing now in terms of speed, strength, and smarts, but I think he’s getting close to earning another look.UPDATE: Monday, Necas was named the CCM/AHL Player of the Week
- I really like watching Nick Schilkey. Obviously, all the points this weekend were huge (3 goals, 2 assists), but he just always seems to be in the right place and making smart plays anyway, both offensively and defensively. I already spoke about his penalty killing prowess, but he also gets powerplay minutes on a pretty loaded team. This obviously speaks to his versatility and the team’s trust in him, and he’s seen time all over the lineup. He’s previously played on the fourth line with Brown and Pu and spent this weekend in the top six with McKegg and Poturalski. Schilkey does a great job working the dirty areas, even though he’s a small guy, and gets back to help out and support his defensemen in his own end. He’s definitely got some skill too, as evidenced by his 27 goals as a senior at Ohio State (in just 35 games). The 24-year-old undrafted free agent earned an AHL contract after being invited to prospect’s camp in 2017 and is in his second year with the Checkers. I’d be lying if I said he had a great chance to be a future NHLer, but with guys that just “play the right way”, do everything the coaches ask, have legitimate hockey IQ, and work their butts off, you can never count them out.
- Same thing goes for Dan Renouf, essentially the defense version of Schilkey who took a different path to the Checkers but has been playing some awesome hockey as well. He signed with Detroit in 2016 after a three-year career at the University of Maine. After appearing in 146 games with their AHL affiliate and 1 in Detroit over three seasons, he signed an AHL contract here this year and has been one of the steadiest defensemen on the team. He’s leaned on heavily during the PK and always seems to come up with big blocks, solid hits separating opponents from the puck, and smart decisions breaking the puck out of his own end. He’s chipped in 8 points to boot and always seems to do a great job getting his reasonably heavy shot through and on net, but even without offensive contributions he has a ton of value on this team.
- I didn’t speak much about Darling during the game recaps, but had two saves I wanted to talk about against Hartford. They were relatively simple, honestly. The first happened off a 4-on-2 rush and a couple quick passes. After the final pass, a quick shot was released, and Darling seemed calm, tracked the puck, squared to the shooter, stayed tall in the crease, and stopped the rising shot headed toward the upper portion of the net with his arm/shoulder. The second was the aforementioned breakaway that he came out and challenged the shooter on, and although he went down when the shot was released he used his upper body to stay vertical and take away the top of the net to make the save. The shooter seemed to be targeting the space between his gloveside arm and body, and Darling tucked his arm in to make sure there was no room. He didn’t have to do much, because he’s a huge guy. Incidentally, that’s really the only reason they were notable, because they were a pretty good example of something he needs to do more often – use that size. For a mountain of a man such as Darling, he seems to play awfully small sometimes. There are too many holes to shoot at, with pucks trickling under his arms, getting over his shoulder, you name it. This shouldn’t be a problem when you’re 6’6, right?! When he gets on top of his crease, checks his angles, and doesn’t drop down early, he tends to have a solid game or two. When he starts getting erratic in the net, his angles go to hell (leading to all those holes) and the rebound control goes out the window. We’ve seen where that leads. I’ve said before that I 100% don’t claim to be an expert on goalies and their evaluation, so if you see anything else that draws your attention from Scott, what he does or doesn’t do well, feel free to let me know in the comments.
- Charlotte’s win percentage is back up to .750 after the 2-0-0 week, and they still lead the AHL in points. San Jose went 3-0-0 this week, though, so when adjusted their win percentage still has them leading the AHL at .786.