This article is the second of two this week checking in on the Charlotte Checkers. If you missed it, you can find similar recaps and analysis of the four games during Thanksgiving week HERE.
After a successful 3-1 road trip, the Checkers had a much-needed four-day break before hitting the road again for five games. With new arrival Scott Darling in tow, they would play a back-to-back-to-back on the weekend. The first stop was in Providence Friday, then a short trip to Hartford for Saturday night’s bout, followed by the return to Providence for a Sunday afternoon matinee to close out the weekend. This was a big stretch, with the “four-point” divisional games on the line, against two Atlantic Division teams that (along with the rest of the division) are looking up at the Checkers in the standings. It is never a bad thing to pad your lead.
Game 1 – Providence Bruins (Boston affiliate)
In Scott Darling’s return, the Checkers played a close-checking match with the Bruins. Early in the game they looked to be quite rested and energized after a lengthy break. The Checkers had a couple nice chances in the opening frame, including a breakaway from Kuokkanen that Zane McIntyre made a strong pad save on. That chance seemed to give the Checkers a lift, as the next couple shifts the team got in on the forecheck and started to apply a good bit of pressure on Providence. Of note, Morgan Geekie returned to the lineup after being a healthy scratch, and looked to have some jump in his step playing on a line with Julien Gauthier and Aleksi Saarela. They controlled the puck regularly in the offensive zone, and had a strong follow-up shift to the Kuokkanen chance. The energetic fourth line of Cliff Pu (starting to play some sound hockey lately even if he’s not scoring a lot), Patrick Brown, and Nick Schilkey then did the same, adding up zone time and hemming the Bruins in. Then, the deadly Roy-Necas-Kuokkanen unit would almost connect for a pretty tic-tac-toe passing play off an odd-man rush, but Necas was hooked an unable to finish the play. Providence’s Emil Johansson would get both a hooking penalty and an additional unsportsmanlike minor after the play, I assume for arguing the call. However, against the Providence PK, which is first in the AHL, the Checkers could not convert during the four-minute advantage. They moved the puck well, but every time they tried to infiltrate the Bruin box to get to a high-danger area they were disrupted. Providence also blocked a ton of shots when the Checkers went into “we just need to get a puck to the net” mode. They only had two shots during the entire double-minor. Then, after Providence had two good chances that Darling saved (after he got lucky that a bad rebound was sent high on what looked like a sure goal), Andrew Poturalski would finally solve McIntyre. Greg McKegg got in on the forecheck, won possession, and hit Poturalski in the slot. He would rip a shot low to the far side with 4:02 to play in the period. Just like that, as they so often do, the Checkers had gotten on the scoreboard first. That’s the way the period would end.
After the Checkers controlled the play for most of the first period, the second would see the Bruins fight back. Just 1:27 in, Darling would get beat off a rush when Providence’s leading scorer Ryan Fitzgerald made a great pass to Jordan Szwarz, who one-timed it home. After a great period in which they probably felt they could have been up more than one goal, the game was suddenly tied. Soon after, Dennis Robertson would take a roughing penalty behind the play, but the Checkers fourth-ranked penalty kill would stand tall. Scott Darling was solid when tested, and didn’t give up any bad rebounds like he had earlier in the game. The rest of the period was a bit of the drag, without many great scoring chances either way. Darling did have one solid save on a shot from the slot that he gloved and held onto without a rebound, but was otherwise not tested extensively. The Checkers only managed five shots in the frame, while the Bruins had 10, but the score stayed knotted at one.
Early in the third period, the Gauthier-Saarela-Geekie line had another solid cycling shift and had a couple chances, but McIntyre continued to keep the door shut. Afterwards, the physical play ramped up and things got a little chippy after a whistle or two, but the chances were a lot harder to come by. Unfortunately, a lack of discipline would throw a wrench in the Checkers attempts to mount an attack. First, Carrick took a hooking penalty when he got tied up after a turnover at the defensive blue line. The team had a really solid penalty kill, though, blocking multiple shots and not even giving up a shot by my count. Unfortunately, Josh Wesley would soon after take a blatant interference penalty with just under six minutes to play. This was clearly a huge point in the game, and the penalty kill could not come up with one last kill. After hardly even getting the puck into the Checkers’ zone for the first minute, Peter Cehlarik would get open in the slot and beat Darling cleanly. Certainly not a goal that one can blame Darling for, but they really could have used a big save there. Either way, with 4:34 to go, the Checkers were suddenly down a goal and needing to stage another late comeback. Unfortunately, in this one, they were facing a sturdy defense and a goalie that had been tracking the puck well all night. Kuokkanen had a nice shot from the slot that McIntyre gloved, and after Darling was pulled (with 3 minutes on the clock) the Checkers got a bunch of mediocre scoring chances, but nothing all that noteworthy. Gauthier did have one play coming out of the corner where he was in basically alone, but from a tough angle McIntyre was able to hold his ground and freeze it. McIntyre would stop 26 of the 27 shots he faced, and the Bruins pulled off a late win. Darling made 21 saves. Charlotte had a tough start to the road trip, but the quick turnaround presented an opportunity to rebound quickly.
Game 2 – Hartford Wolfpack (New York Rangers)
The next night, the Checkers did battle with a Hartford team that struggled early in the year but entered the night on a four-game winning streak. This game would be a wild one, especially in the first period. After playing two teams in Laval and Providence that are content to play a close-checking, grind-it-out style, this game would present a notable shift. Within the first minute and a half the Wolfpack nearly scored twice, with Alex Nedlejkovic making a huge save once and getting bailed out by the post on the other. Just five minutes in, Hartford would get a goal off a deflection of a point shot that got through Nedeljkovic’s five-hole. However, less than a minute later, captain Patrick Brown would get it right back with a deflection of his own off a Roland McKeown snap shot. The action was far from over, though. Next up, Hartford defenseman Ryan O’Gara crept in and fired a horrible angle shot essentially from the corner. Two days later, I still can’t believe that went in. Not a good goal to give up at all. Matter of fact, it was a flat-out BAD goal allowed by Nedeljkovic. That’s all the analysis I have for you on that one. Moving on.
Shortly thereafter, Cliff Pu hit the offensive zone with speed and made a nice pass to Nick Schilkey in the slot. Schilkey ripped one that beat Dustin Tokarski, but clanged off the post. Patrick Brown sent the rebound wide and it rimmed around to Jake Bean, playing in his first game back in Charlotte. Bean took a second to curl with the puck, looked up, and found Schilkey with a seam pass from the left point to inside the right circle. It was an absolutely gorgeous pass. This time Schilkey found the twine. It was the second of the year from the undrafted free agent out of Ohio State, and we were tied right back up at 2-2. The Checkers weren’t done yet, though. Next, it was Julien Gauthier who got in on the fun. Morgan Geekie, for the second time on the shift, made a good play to get the puck out of the defensive zone. From there, it was all Gauthier, with one of those “man amongst boys” moments that got him drafted in the first round. He poked the puck past the two defensemen, basically out-muscled both of them to the net, and tucked a backhand move around Tokarski to make it 3-2. The teams would finally seem to take a breath after this, as the scoring for the period was over. Hartford had a late powerplay with a couple good chances, but Nedeljkovic stayed square and shut the door. The Checkers had five shots and three goals in the period, while Ned stopped 8 of 10.
Early in the second period, the Checkers had a couple near-misses. Aleksi Saarela had space on a rush and ripped one just wide that, knowing how great his shot is, probably would have been a goal had he hit the net. On the same shift, Saarela hit Dan Renouf leaking in from his point position all alone in front, but Tokarski made a fantastic glove save. Once the Wolfpack took a penalty soon after, the Checkers were in desperate need of an insurance marker to get a little separation – especially considering all the opportunities they were getting. When that powerplay failed to capitalize, the tone of the game seemed to change. Just two minutes after the penalty expired, the game was tied. Ned came way too far out of his net to challenge a shot, and the forward with the puck darted behind the cage. He came to the other side and poked the puck out front, where Shawn O’Donnell finished over a scrambling Nedeljkovic. Momentum matters, folks. When you have lots of chances and don’t score, the other team eventually gets a lift, and what usually happens? I don’t have to tell you guys this… You are Canes fans after all. We see it far too often off of failed powerplays, huge saves by the opposing goalie, you name it. The rest of the period would not see a change on the scoreboard, and we headed to the third period in a 3-3 deadlock.
The next goal was pretty clearly going to be a big one, and the Wolfpack came out and got it pretty quickly. It was a pretty simple play; get in on the forecheck, win possession, get the puck to the point, then get it to the net. Peter Holland beat Nedeljkovic to the glove side through a screen, and the Checkers found themselves down a goal for the third time in the game. From that point on, I just kept coming back to one thing: hockey is funny. The Canes can dominate for 59 minutes and lose. They can double up teams on the shot board and lose. They can have a lead with 5 minutes left, and if the opposition finds a way to get that game to overtime? You get the point. The Checkers probably played their best hockey of the game in the third. They peppered Tokarski with 19 shots, a good chunk of which were very good chances. Suddenly, they couldn’t buy a goal on a guy that could barely make a save the first period. After the three goals on five shots in the first, Tokarski turned away all 28 he faced in the next two periods. Point is, shot totals really don’t matter, do they? Nicolas Roy had a great chance after screening the goalie on a Wesley bomb from the point. Carrick had a great chance off a 3-on-2. Necas nearly tucked in a wraparound during a 4-on-4 segment. Tokarski turned them all away. It just wasn’t meant to be. But that’s hockey, and its probably part of the reason we love it. After all those great chances, Hartford captain Cole Schneider stole a puck at the blue line, went in on a breakaway, made a beautiful deke on Nedeljkovic and made it 5-3. It was a back-breaker if I’ve ever seen one, and while the Checkers continued to get chances and test Tokarski, they never drew any closer. This would result in the Checkers’ first back-to-back regulation losses of the year.
Game 3 – Providence
The Checkers headed back to Providence looking to salvage something from what had been a rough weekend, but playing an afternoon road game with travel (albeit a short amount, Hartford and Providence are only about an hour and a half apart) on the final leg of three straight game days made it a tall task. Things looked bleak when the Checkers started the game by promptly giving up a brutal turnover that Darling initially saved, but the rebound was tucked around him for an early deficit. Jake Bean tried to go to the middle on the breakout, and you just CANNOT do that unless you are 110% sure it is there. There are occasional times where that is the right play, when the forecheck has the wall sealed and your defense partner or supporting center is the only one up the middle. This play was not one of those instances. You cannot risk a turnover right in front of your own cage. That’s a Peewee hockey lesson. Oh well, the kid is 20, and he’ll learn from his mistakes. I’m still of the opinion there has been FAR more good things than bad from Bean. The Checkers got going a bit after the goal. They were unable to solve Zane McIntyre, but they were buzzing for much of the period. They out-shot Providence 12-8 in the frame.
The second period started with a good pace to it, with good chances both ways. Brown and Schilkey nearly capitalized on a quick 2-on-1, but McIntyre got a pad to it. Likewise, Gauthier was denied when used his speed and size to get a step on his defender, then lowered his shoulder to get to the net for a solid chance. I know his numbers don’t pop off the page at the moment (12 points in 24 games), but I would not be surprised at all if he goes on a scoring run here in the near future. I continue to see good things when I watch him play, as I find myself writing in just about all of these articles. Scott Darling saw a couple decent chances of his own, and had a really solid period. The second half of the frame became a parade to the penalty box. Just past the game’s midway point, the Bruins took a penalty when Josh Wesley did a nice job protecting the puck and drew a hooking call. Unfortunately, Nic Roy would take a slashing call just seven seconds later to negate the man advantage. Less than a minute later, Poturalski weaved in and out of traffic and drew yet another stick infraction. At that point, Bean, Gauthier, Necas, and Saarela were fun to watch go to work with all that space. Saarela was the trigger man, for obvious reasons, and he had two bombs that just missed the mark. One of them, off a cross-ice pass from Bean (he seems to make at least one of these passes every single game), hit the outside of the post. I don’t think McIntyre had any chance on it if he placed it just inside the post. Gauthier had one more chance trying to walk out from his spot at the goal line, but McIntyre once again was up to the task. The last few minutes of the period would be relatively uneventful. We headed to the third period still looking for the equalizer, despite 25 Checker shots on goal.
When Providence came out in the third period and extended their lead to 2-0, this weekend started to look like it was really going to be a downer. Darling gave up a bad rebound off a shot from outside the face-off dot. Karson Kuhlman got his own rebound and found former first round pick Trent Frederic streaking in backdoor, who finished easily into the vacant cage. Once again, though, the Checkers showed they have a room full of kids who believe in each other, that never get down or feel they’re out of a game. Three minutes after the Bruins lead was doubled, Janne Kuokkanen ended his seven-game goal scoring drought. Andrew Poturalski gained entry and carried the puck below the goal line. After circling the net he found Trevor Carrick, who quickly went D-to-D to Kuokkanen. He would walk in and fire a shot that McIntyre could see the whole way, but he just flat beat him on a great shot high to the glove side. It was really a simple goal: get the puck low to high, move it puck side to side, get the goalie moving, and get a shot on goal. Usually a screen helps too, but a shot this nice did the trick. I hope the Hurricanes see a highlight of it, because it was simple and effective execution of a powerplay, and when you’re struggling the best way to go about it is going back to basics. Regardless, the Checkers had finally solved McIntyre, and were back within one. They went right back to work, smelling blood in the water. Carrick had a shot through traffic, but McIntyre took care of that as well as a Gauthier rebound chance. After Providence took another penalty, Kuokkanen had another good chance that was gloved. When the man advantage ended with just the one shot, it seemed like the Checkers may have missed out on a golden opportunity. However, Martin Necas came through soon after. Saarela and Roy would do a great job getting on the forecheck and winning possession. Saarela would skate the puck up the wall and turn around to throw a seemingly harmless shot at the net, which McIntyre would get a pad on. Roy got to the rebound, which was stopped, but deflected high in the air. Necas was able to do a great job gloving the puck down and stuffing it past the sliding goaltender. McIntyre was incensed, shouting at the refs that the goal should have been disallowed, before breaking his stick on the post. The theatrics were to no avail, though, as the goal stood, and we were tied with just over 5 minutes to go.
Save for a Dan Renouf slapshot through traffic that was swallowed without a rebound, neither team got much going in the last five minutes. Regulation ended with the shots 42-25, favoring Charlotte. They had fought back from a 2-0, third period deficit, but were looking for more. Both goalies made some good saves in the extra period, with Darling getting a little help from the post off a heavy wrister, once again from Trent Frederic. Eventually, Greg McKegg started the play of the game with a nice hustle play to win a race in the defensive zone. With just 20 seconds remaining in the overtime period, he wheeled around and gained speed into the offensive zone on a 3-on-2 rush. Trevor Carrick drove the net hard, forcing the defenseman to stay with him, and creating the smallest amount of space for the trailer, Andrew Poturalski. Poturalski received the pass, took a step towards the middle, and wired a beautiful shot that beat McIntyre in the top corner, blocker side. The Checkers had fought back from the brink of an 0-3 road trip to salvage a huge win against a divisional opponent and a hot goalie that made 44 saves on the day. Darling was solid with 26 saves of his own. It definitely made for a better bus trip home, coming off a hard-earned victory instead of three consecutive losses.
- Michal Cajkovsky is a bruiser on the back end. He had a couple thunderous hits, including a huge open-ice check that floored a Providence attacker just as he crossed the blue line. I doubt he has much of an NHL future with the way the game is trending towards fleet-footed puck movers, but he’s a nice depth piece for an AHL squad. These still hold legitimate value within organizations.
- I joked about almost forgetting Josh Wesley existed, but he actually played pretty well. I was mildly surprised to see him on one of the powerplay units, as well in an extra attacker scenario when down a goal late, but he did a nice job of moving the puck and maintaining possession. He was two years younger than me coming up in the Jr. Canes organization, but being that he is Glen Wesley’s son we heard about him pretty regularly and saw him play a few times. He was actually a forward in those days, a good one, so even though he has not been known for his offensive abilities since turning pro there are certainly still some skills there. He had the costly penalty that led to a game-winning goal, but I thought he made his fair share of solid plays and didn’t look out of place.
- Nicolas Roy (and Greg McKegg, too) is fantastic in the face-off dot. This is an underrated facet of his game. Always huge to start off a play with the puck, obviously. I think a big part of this team’s success in dominating the possession aspect of the game is having so many guys that do a great job winning face-offs. They do this very well on special teams, too; Saarela had a goal I highlighted against Laval where he won the draw, got to his spot, and sniped a beautiful goal. This is something the Hurricanes have not done a good job of at all on the powerplay. Maybe would make at least a minor difference if guys would start winning those man-advantage draws instead of having to immediately go the length of the ice when the opposition gets a win and clears it down the ice.
- I’m getting a little worried about Alex Nedeljkovic. You can see that his numbers are not good, but we should know by now that the numbers do not always tell the whole story. He has had some games where his numbers look a little worse than he deserved with the way he played. That doesn’t change the fact that he is very erratic in net, though. That isn’t a good thing, as we’re seeing guys play calmly like a McElhinney or even Booth and have a lot of success. With Ned it just seems like there are too many holes to shoot at, under his arms, underneath him, whatever it may be – the puck just seems to find its way by him. A lot. Goalies aren’t easy to evaluate, so maybe the Canes see something more than I do, but I was pretty annoyed when I saw Booth was getting demoted to the ECHL. What is he going to get out of facing talent that will never even sniff the NHL? I honestly think he might be the better prospect, and in an organization not all that well-known for goalie development… This is probably something to monitor. I guess it still beats what he’s been doing lately, starting one out of every 5-6 games…
- It’s really interesting to me, having watched a decent chunk of these games at this point, that Clark Bishop was the player to get the call-up when Micheal Ferland went down. Janne Kuokkanen is clearly the most offensively gifted player on the team, and when your leading goal scorer goes down don’t you… want to… bring up a player that scores? Especially when your team already struggles putting the puck in the net? We already have like 7 players in the same vein as Bishop, don’t we? I like the kid, don’t get me wrong. But he plays a strictly-fourth-line role and you can’t count on him to provide even secondary scoring. I don’t know what exactly – if anything – this says about how this team feels about its prospects, and more specifically offense-leaning guys like Kuokkanen, Saarela, or even Necas, but some decisions that have been made lately (don’t get me started on the division of ice time and player roles) have been curious to say the least. Sorry for getting sidetracked a bit, just my two cents.
- I recently saw a rumor about Maenalanen possibly leaving for the KHL in the near future. I do not know how reliable those sources are (and I can’t even really remember exactly where it came from), so apologies in advance if this is a pointless mention. I think he’d be a significant loss for this team’s depth, though, as he plays a solid two-way game and brings a lot of energy to the team.
- After dropping two of three this week, the Checkers no longer have the top winning percentage in the league. San Jose, who has played 6 fewer games, has a record of 12-3-3 (.750) while Charlotte is now 17-6-1 (.729, still good for 2nd). They still lead the league in points, however.
Notable Stats (24 games played unless otherwise noted)
Janne Kuokkanen – 9 goals, 14 assists, 23 points
Andrew Poturalski – 8 goals, 14 assists, 22 points
Trevor Carrick – 3 goals, 15 assists, 18 points (22 GP)
Aleksi Saarela – 7 goals, 9 assists, 16 points
Greg McKegg – 2 goals, 13 assists, 15 points (20 GP)
Martin Necas – 6 goals, 7 assists, 13 points (20 GP)
Nicolas Roy – 7 goals, 5 assists, 12 points (17 GP)
Jake Bean – 3 goals, 9 assists, 12 points (23 GP)
Julien Gauthier – 7 goals, 5 assists, 12 points
Roland McKeown – 2 goals, 10 assists, 12 points
Saku Maenalanen – 4 goals, 7 assists, 11 points
Patrick Brown – 6 goals, 4 assists, 10 points (18 GP)
Morgan Geekie – 5 goals, 4 assists, 9 points (21 GP)
Goalies (W-L-OTL, GAA, SV%)
Scott Darling – 2-1-0, 1.66, .935
Callum Booth – 3-1-0, 2.27, .907
Alex Nedeljkovic – 12-4-1, 2.94, .890
If you watch the Checkers regularly, feel free to let me know your thoughts on whatever players or the team in general. I’m always game to talk prospects. Even if you don’t watch, feel free to ask whatever you may be curious about.
Being that this was essentially a double edition covering two weeks’ worth of games, I did not pick a player to profile this time like I did with Bean last go-round. That feature will be back in next week’s edition. I’m open to requests, so if there is any specific player you guys would like to see featured next week, let me know in the comments.