Welcome back! Hope everybody in the Caniac Nation and beyond had lots of good food and quality family time over the holiday. I am sorry for not getting in a recap of last week, but considering my mother’s birthday is the 23rd and my father’s the 24th in addition to the holiday, Thanksgiving week is always a hectic time for me. So, this week we get a double-edition which will include a recap of the highlights of last week followed very soon by the most recent week’s analysis as well.
Charlotte Checkers week of 11/19 – 11/25
Game 1 – Belleville Senators (Ottawa affiliate)
The Checkers’ first game back on home ice after a six-game road trip was not pretty. It started off well enough, with Valentin Zykov banging in a goal on the powerplay from right in front of the net. Bean was atop the umbrella (powerplay formation with a single defenseman/player atop the zone and two flanking forwards in shooting positions near the tops of the circles, a la Ovechkin, Laine, Faulk back when he was scoring on the PP constantly, etc.), and had a nice shot fake to get the defense committing before sliding a pass to his right to Kuokkanen. Kuokkanen one-timed a shot-pass to Zykov, who was able to quickly corral and finish the rebound past Belleville goalie Filip Gustavsson. That was pretty much the last highlight for the rest of the game, as Belleville rolled to five straight goals from that point forward. The Checkers were thoroughly outplayed, and coach Mike Vellucci was adamant after the game that Alex Nedeljkovic (22 saves on 27 shots) was not at fault whatsoever. The Belleville goals were scored as follows:
- Rebound that I thought Ned got to but somehow slid under him
- Defensive breakdown by Renouf and Necas that led to a partial breakaway from off the half-wall
- Bean turnover exiting the zone that led to a 3-on-1 and tic-tac-toe backdoor goal
- Partial breakaway goal on a snipe under the arm (only one Ned probably had a good chance on. Can’t leave holes like this in the NHL, just ask your new goaltending partner)
- Turnover by Bean to a wide-open player alone in front of the net.
Ned actually made quite a few solid saves, but I don’t think anybody was stopping all five of those. He was pulled after the final goal in favor of Callum Booth with about 11 minutes left, who did not face a shot in that time frame. Not much good to take from this game at all, as the home team only managed 20 shots and was sloppy all night long.
Game 2 – Belleville Senators
The second night of the back to back was a bit more competitive. The Sens scored first on a powerplay, but the Checkers were able to even the score late in the period. When Trevor Carrick intercepted towering Raleigh-native Logan Brown’s entry pass, he was able to quickly get the puck moving up ice to Necas (who was notably moved to the wing in this game). He and Kuokkanen were then in on a 2-on-1, with a close backchecker that really made it more of a 2-on-2. Necas tried to fit a pass in to Kuokkanen, but both defenders converged on the puck. However, JK was able to do a great job of poking it back to Necas, who rifled a beautiful snipe high-glove on Gustavsson. The score would stay tied at one apiece until the Sens retook the lead on a deflection just minute and a half into the third. It seemed like the Checkers were in danger of dropping to 0-2 to kick off the home stand, but Aleksi Saarela continued his fine play of late with yet another clutch goal with 2:23 left in regulation. With the goalie already pulled and the Checkers mounting pressure, Jake Bean made an absolutely gorgeous seam pass, holding onto the puck until the precise moment he had a lane and threading the needle straight into Saarela’s wheelhouse, who unleashed his big shot and one-timed it home. The game would go to overtime, which set the stage for Necas to play the hero. There was a lot of action even beforehand during the 3-on-3, starting with a huge Nedeljkovic-led 4-on-3 penalty kill and followed by a lightning-fast Poturalski rush that he ripped off the nearside goal post. There were many chances both ways. Eventually, Carrick would bat down an attempted chip into the zone by a Belleville player and send Necas in on a breakaway. Some of you may have already seen the video that circulated on Twitter when it happened, but he made a really pretty move to the backhand and scored past an outstretched Gustavsson. As they have done many times, the Checkers showed their resiliency and fought back from the cusp of defeat to steal a win. Bean, Necas, and Nedeljkovic (20 saves) had nice bounce-back performances.
*Note: Morgan Geekie was a healthy scratch in this game. I noted in the last edition that he was been pretty invisible for a while, hopefully this will give him a bit of a jolt.
Game 3 – Laval Rocket (Montreal)
The first night of the weekend back-to-back saw the Checkers welcome the Laval Rocket, a team that has struggled out of the gate of the AHL season. This was a good opportunity for the team to take advantage and add a couple more W’s to the ledger. They would do just that. The first game saw the Checkers get off to yet another strong start, with Valentin Zykov (miss you already, big guy) scoring just 4:48 into the game. Shortly after they had a strong kill of an early Nicolas Roy penalty, Josh Wesley (almost forgot about him) had a nice stretch pass to Greg McKegg. After a nice give and go with Zykov, Charlie Lindgren made a nice save on McKegg’s chance, but as he so often was Valentin Zykov got there to punch in the rebound for an early 1-0 lead. Later, with just under 7 to go in the first, Aleksi Saarela would hit captain Patrick Brown, recently back from injury, with a nice pass in the high slot. Brown ripped a one-timer high glove on Lindgren, and their lead was doubled. Laval would get one back late in the period off of a point shot through a lot of traffic that Nedeljkovic never seemed to pick up, but the Checkers would maintain their lead through 20 minutes.
After the Rocket tied the score early in the second off a defensive zone turnover, Jake Bean would reinstate the lead just before the midway point of the game. Cliff Pu poked a puck up the wall to Roland McKeown, who made a nice pass across the zone to Bean. He quickly ripped a beautiful wrister that beat Lindgren cleanly. Then, Charlotte’s deadly powerplay would score a backbreaking, late period goal. Off of what seemed like a broken play, Greg McKegg gained entry into the offensive zone and passed to Aleksi Saarela. The young Finn wasted no time in wiring one high to the blocker side of Lindgren, through a nice screen from Nicolas Roy. Saarela’s shot is really something. This would be his sixth goal of the year to go along with his earlier assist. The period would end with Laval only getting two shots in the entire frame, though they did get a goal out of one of those.
Laval would double its shot total in the third, from eight to sixteen, but could not close the gap in a game Charlotte was rock-solid defensively in. Nedeljokvic’s save percentage took another hit being that he faced so few shots, but he played a solid-enough game. I would not consider either goal to be on him. In all, it was a very workmanlike victory from one of the AHL’s best teams facing one of the worst.
Game 4 – Laval Rocket
Just a handful of hours later, the two teams were back at it for an early afternoon rematch. Callum Booth got the start in net and was the big story in this one. The Checkers started off well once again, aided by a 5-on-3 powerplay marker from – you guessed it – Aleksi Saarela. Mike Velluci said, per Jason Shaya on the Checkers broadcast, that he has the “deadliest shot in the AHL”. I don’t think I can argue that (not that I’ve seen every player in the AHL’s shot, but Saarela’s truly is special). This goal was incredible. Martin Necas and Jake Bean, who was playing on both of Charlotte’s powerplay units and did not come off the ice during the duration, played catch momentarily. Saarela had won the faceoff and was moving into his lethal, Ovechkin-esque shooting position at the top of the circle (except that he’s a lefty so he obviously sets up on the opposite side as the Great 8 does). Bean settled the puck and eventually worked it over to Saarela. The Laval defense gave him a lane to walk in just a bit, and he absolutely wired a filthy shot just past Laval goalie Michael McNiven’s head. I’m sure he will hear the buzzing of that frozen rubber zooming by his ear in his nightmares for the foreseeable future. Late in the period, Josh Wesley would make a really poor decision and pinch at center ice on a breakout. Montreal prospect Michael McCarron would receive a backdoor pass on the ensuing 2-on-1, and the score was tied with less than three minutes to go in the period.
The Checkers had really dominated possession and led the shot count 7 to 3 in the first period, but, as late goals often do, the momentum swung in a big way. The second period was essentially the polar opposite of the first, as Laval outshot Charlotte 11-2. Charlotte took three penalties in the frame, presenting a golden opportunity for Laval to jump in front. Luckily for the Checkers, Callum Booth was locked in. He seemed very cool and calm in the net, not unlike the impossible-to-rattle Curtis McElhinney. Being that this was their 10th game in 17 days, it was fair to wonder if the Checkers were just out of gas. However, they were able to muster one last gasp ahead of their four-day break, and earn the win for their young goalie who kept them in it long enough to do so.
The pace of the final period was much more open and than the last five had been between these two teams. In one and two-thirds games, the two teams combined had registered just 64 shots, an average of just over 6 apiece per period. However, in the third period Booth would face a more-typical 13 from Laval. He turned away all of them, including an early breakaway. Then, after really struggling to generate much offense the first half of the period, our favorite young Czech center would finally break through. Necas would help break the puck out of his own end by coming back and supporting the regroup. He skated the puck up ice and passed to a defenseman (I think Renouf) who attempted to chip the puck deep. The attempt was blocked and deflected high into the air by a Laval player. Kuokkanen made a really clever play to essentially bat the puck down to Nicolas Roy, who tried to get a quick shot off. A defenseman blocked a pretty large chunk of it, but the change of direction caused McNiven to kick the rebound right back in front of him. Necas was flying through the zone and got to it first, and slid it past the netminder’s outstretched glove to give Charlotte the lead halfway through the third. This seemed to energize the home team, and they picked it up for the remainder of the game, giving up very little in terms of chances against. McKeown would add an empty netter with two seconds left, and the Checkers had followed up a nice road trip with a 3-1 home stand. Booth made 26 saves on 27 shots, and Necas backed him up with the game-winning goal and an assist.
The recap from the most recent week should follow tomorrow for those looking to catch up on the Checkers.