After getting back in the win column following its first three-game losing streak of the 2018-19 season heading into the short All-star break, the Checkers had a rough six game stretch over the last two weeks. Luckily for me, that makes for a bit less content that needs to be covered, and I can make up for getting behind on this series 😀 – Apologies for this, by the way, but my own hockey season is wrapping up in the next couple weeks (we just finished off a 21-0-0 regular season, 22-0 if you count Clemson’s forfeit last weekend, and we have the #1 seed in the ACCHL conference tournament this weekend in Winston-Salem. If anyone is looking for a little more local hockey to check out, it should be a lot of fun. First game is 3:00 on Friday. Go Wolfpack!) and at that point I’ll have a lot less on my plate and can get back into a deep dive into what’s happening in the system. But I’ll get you all caught up here on the last two weeks, just hitting the major points for longevity’s sake. Instead of giving takeaways from each game individually, we’ll start with a few overall takeaways and then get into recaps of the games.
Even through the team’s recent struggles, the young goalie continues to play at as high of a level as he has since turning pro. He was named the AHL’s goalie of the month for January, going 6-0-0 with a 1.78 goals-against average and save percentage of .937. Add in a rock-solid NHL debut in Vancouver, and I’d say he had a pretty good month. He’s started off February similarly strong, allowing 7 goals in 4 games with a .936 save percentage. Nedeljkovic has improved exponentially in the last year and a half, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say he’s trending towards breaking camp in 2019 with the big club. Things could change, and he has to stay consistent, but his time seems to be getting nearer and nearer with each start.
Bean scored against Hershey to hit double digits in goals with 10 on the year, an extremely impressive feat for a 20-year-old rookie defenseman. We talked about him at length last edition, so I won’t be repetitive, but one area I haven’t spoken much about is his shot. Bean has one of the most dangerous wristers in the AHL. His goal against Hershey was gorgeous, buggy-whip of a release, with excellent velocity and perfectly placed into the top right corner. Goalies have a really hard time tracking it even at a distance. Every part of his offensive game looks the part of an NHL-level offensive defenseman, and the kid is just flat-out fun to watch.
Still the best
Even with a rough two week stretch coming in at 1-2-3, the Checkers are still 8 points clear of the rest of the league. Just a reminder of how dominant this team has been this season. They still have to go 0-4 and have a team directly below them go 4-0 to even be tied. They do need to break from this slump relatively soon to avoid having that lead completely evaporate, but they’re still in great shape with a stellar 32-13-7 mark heading down the home stretch.
Games 1 and 2 – Providence Bruins (Boston affiliate)
Starting off a four-game home stand with the Bruins, it was the Checkers’ offense taking a mid-winter hibernation. This would be a theme over this stretch, as the Checkers scored two goals or fewer in five of the six games. The Checkers trailed 1-0 late in the first game, but Julien Gauthier had a great net-front presence and got a piece of an Aleksi Saarela blast to tie it with just 27 seconds left. Trevor Carrick had a much-deserved secondary assist – with Nedeljkovic pulled, he had made a remarkable play just seconds early saving a sure goal from crossing the line. The Checkers got a point, and Ned continued his excellent recent play with 29 saves, including a 2-on-0 in overtime. Only problem was, Providence’s Zane McIntyre was a little bit better. OT was incredibly fast-paced and exciting, but, unfortunately, eventually Cameron Hughes found the back of the net to get the extra point for Providence. The goal came with just 10 seconds remaining in the extra frame on a bit of a broken 2-on-1 that squeaked under Nedeljkovic. Oddly enough, all three goals in this game came with fewer than 30 seconds on the clock, as Providence’s initial goal was scored with 15 ticks left in period two.
The next night, the offensive output was even scarcer. Once again, the Checkers were lucky to pull out a point thanks to Scott Darling and some sound defense. In his penultimate game preceding this very sad personal break the team announced he is taking, Darling stopped everything he saw through three periods of hockey (27 shots). I know I have kind of ragged on him at times here, but I truly wish nothing but the best for Scott and hope he gets his career back on track. He’s a good person with a remarkable story, and as a person who has battled substance abuse issues in the past, I relate to him on a very deep level. Seeing him make it to hockey’s highest level was nothing short of inspirational to me. Truthfully none of us know what is going on behind closed doors, and I hope this “reset”, as Waddell put it, leads to an eventual comeback in another city.
Gemel Smith ended this one on a 2-on-1, off a backdoor pass which Darling had no chance on. Dan Vladar was phenomenal for Providence, stopping all 37 shots he faced. The Checkers had to feel lucky they mustered two points out of two games in which they only scored one total goal, but had to have a sour taste in their mouths heading into a couple off-days.
Games 3 and 4 – Cleveland Monsters (Columbus affiliate)
To close out the home stand and kick off a busy four-game week, the Checkers hosted Cleveland for the first time all year for a Tuesday-Wednesday back-to-back. The game would also mark the return of Janne Kuokkanen, a welcome site for a struggling offense. The Checkers would finally get a little going early in this one, as Jake Bean found Aleksi Saarela who fired a laser past Cleveland’s Matiss Kivlenieks for 1-0 lead just over 5 minutes in. Josiah Didier and Morgan Geekie (who also assisted on Didier’s goal) added insurance markers in the second, and Nedeljkovic locked it down from there. He was beaten once in the third period on a shot by Paul Bittner, but Cleveland would get no closer for a 3-1 Checkers W.
The next night was a pretty rough one for Charlotte. The game itself wouldn’t look so bad if you took out the goals, as Charlotte fired 41 shots. Many of those were from the perimeter, though, and they weren’t as sound defensively as usual in allowing 35. It seemed like a barn burner, but only one side was actually finishing its chances. Some of that is attributable to Cleveland’s Jean-Francois Berube, who was very good in only allowing one goal. Scott Darling, in his likely last game with the organization, made 30 saves and continued to get very little support from his offense. The lone Checker goal was scored by Nick Schilkey on a nice individual play to force an offensive-zone turnover and beat Berube blocker side, which at the time it cut the lead to 2-1 late in the second to give the Checkers some life. Unfortunately, the Monsters ran away with three unanswered goals in the third to take it 5-1. The home stand still ended with a 1-1-2 mark, but you can certainly do worse than 4 out of a possible 6 points.
Games 5 and 6 – Hershey Bears (Washington affiliate)
To close out the week, the Checkers headed up to Pennsylvania to take on the hottest team in the American Hockey League. After a surprising and quite underwhelming first half of the year, the Bears have made a big move up the Atlantic Division standings with a 9-0-1 record coming into this series. The Bears have two very highly regarded netminders the Checkers would face, with Czech-born Vitek Vanecek and Russian Ilya Samsonov, one of the very few goalies to be deemed worthy of a first-round draft selection in recent years. With the Checkers struggling, it seemed like bad timing, and… well, it played out that way.
This may have been the Checkers best effort of all six games I’m recapping here, as this one was a truly good hockey game between two high-level teams. The action was packed, there were good chances both ways, and the goalie play was outstanding. In the first period, the captain got the Checkers off to a quick start. On the powerplay, Patrick Brown caught a pass at the goal line (same area where Lindholm used to line up) and made a quick move to the middle, winning a battle and banging in a greasy goal past Vanecek for a 1-0 lead. It was the kind of goal the Checkers get a number of when they’re playing well, and the kind of goal they haven’t gotten enough of lately. Hershey answered back in the second, but mid-way through the third Jake Bean got the lead back with his aforementioned 10th of the year. This one also came on the powerplay, a unit that has been struggling mightily lately, so hopefully that’s an area that is moving in the right direction. Martin Necas got the secondary assist on the play, ending a seven-game pointless stretch, and the Checkers really need guys like him and Kuokkanen to get going again. Something the Checkers have done a great job of this year is holding onto late leads, but, unfortunately, this was not the case that day. With the opposing goalie pulled and about a minute and a half to go, Roland McKeown had a brutal turnover at the defensive blue line. He tried to chip the puck out softly to avoid an icing, but it just sort of fluttered and was easily knocked down and kept in the zone. In the blink of an eye, the Bears had tied it. It was quite unlucky, as Riley Barber’s centering pass from behind the net bounced off the stick of Fleury, off the leg of McKeown, over Ned’s pad, and into the net. The game would go to a shootout, and Hershey would take the extra point in 5 rounds, as Vitek Vanecek didn’t allow a single goal to Morgan Geekie, Martin Necas, Nick Schilkey, Aleksi Saarela, and Janne Kuokkanen. Ned was awesome too, but Aussie Nathan Walker finally beat him to end the game.
The story of the final game was the aforementioned Samsonov, who had quite possibly his best game in his North American career. Making the jump this year from the KHL, where he had put up outstanding numbers the last three years, Samsonov struggled a good bit (much like his team) early in 2018-19. Of late, though, he’s really turning it on, and stole this game from Charlotte. The Checkers held a 30-21 shot advantage, had a good number of dangerous chances, but the 6’3, 200-pound goalie showed why he was regarded as one of the best goaltending prospects in years this afternoon. His best work came on the penalty kill, as Charlotte’s five powerplays on the day led to quite a few grade-A chances (and one crossbar), but they did not capitalize on any of them. The only blemish on Samsonov’s line was a second period goal from Nicolas Roy on a great backdoor touch pass from Nick Schilkey. This tied the game at 1, but a late second period 5-on-3 marker from Riley Barber, a top-ten goal scorer in the AHL, was the difference. Ned was solid even though he only faced 21 shots, but the Checkers dropped their 5th game of their last 6, and 8th of their last 10. They have managed to grab one point in another four of those 10, but the slump continues.
Charlotte Checkers Statistics
Players – Goals-assists-points, through 52 games
Andrew Poturalski – 18-30-48
Aleksi Saarela – 16-20-36 (49 GP)
Janne Kuokkanen – 11-21-32 (41 GP)
Jake Bean – 10-21-31
Martin Necas – 9-20-29 (42 GP)
Nicolas Roy – 14-14-28 (45 GP)
Trevor Carrick – 7-20-27 (47 GP)
Morgan Geekie – 14-13-27 (49 GP)
Julien Gauthier – 13-11-24
Roland McKeown – 2-19-21
Nick Schilkey – 9-12-21 (40 GP)
Patrick Brown – 10-8-17 (46 GP)
Goalies – W-L-OTL, save percentage, goals-against average
Alex Nedeljkovic – 21-6-6, .907, 2.54
Callum Booth – 4-1-1, .898, 2.53
Scott Darling – 5-6-2, .882, 3.40