Thursday at Canes and Coffee features a “the future is bright” theme that also includes Cory Fogg’s update on the Hurricanes prospects who are tearing it up in the Canadian junior playoffs.
If you missed it, the Charlotte Checkers closed out a nail-biter of a week last Saturday with an overtime loss that was good enough to bring 2017 playoff hockey to North Carolina — Charlotte that is. My recap of last week’s games and the players who pushed the Charlotte Checkers up into the playoffs is HERE.
For those who were focused on Hurricanes hockey in Raleigh until recently, here is a primer on the Charlotte Checkers playoff push and the team’s key players heading into their playoff series that starts Thursday night in Charlotte at Bojangles Arena.
How did the Checkers get here?
After a rough first half of the season for the Charlotte Checkers, the team would pick up their play in the second half of the season and make an amazing push into the postseason. After falling to a lowly 13-20-2 on Saturday (Jan. 7), the Checkers would go 26-9-3 in their remaining 38 games of the season and climb into the final playoff spot of the Central Division. During that second half of the season push players including Andrew Miller, Lucas Wallmark, Haydn Fleury, Aleksi Saarela, Andrew Poturalski, and goaltender Tom McCollum all stepped up and played key roles for Charlotte. Checkers captain Patrick Brown also deserves credit for the Checkers great second half performance with his lead by example mentality and leaving everything he had out on the ice.
Who are these guys?
Three key Checkers forwards
- Lucas Wallmark- Lucas Wallmark has been everything that the Checkers could have ever hoped for this season. The 21-year old from Sweden set a Checkers rookie record for goals in a season with 24. He also finished the season with the third most points scored by a rookie for the Checkers in franchise history. So, you could say the Checkers need him to play well if they want to have any chance of winning against Chicago. Wallmark has displayed terrific puck control the whole year and he has great hockey sense when he is on the ice. He doesn’t usually try to force anything and he chooses to be patient and make the smart play on offense. The thing that is really holding him back from becoming a consistent NHL player is his speed. He does not have great acceleration and that can hinder him against speedier players. He missed a few games recently with an injury but hopefully will be ready to go when the series starts.
- Aleksi Saarela- Even though he is still considered a newcomer, Aleksi Saaerla is possibly the Checkers best offensive threat. In 9 games played, Saarela has 10 points, and he has looked dominant at times when he has the puck on his stick. He has found great chemistry with his linemate Andrew Miller, who seems to know the right times to feed Saarela and give him solid chances to score. On multiple occasion’s Saarela blew past defenders in his path to the net by simply out-skating them for a breakaway opportunity. I have not seen that type of skill and speed even at the AHL level from a Hurricanes player in a long time. Two of the biggest knocks on him in the past has been his effort level throughout games and his proneness to injury. So far in his time with Charlotte, I have not seen anything that would indicate he is not giving 100% every time he steps out on the ice. As for being prone to injury, he already tweaked something in the Checkers game with the Grand Rapids Griffins on Wednesday (Apr. 12) and it caused him to miss the final two games of the season. Since the final game of the season, he has been labeled as day-to-day by the Checkers staff and has a chance to play in the Checkers first playoff game on Thursday. If he is healthy enough to play, a continued offense surge by Saarela could lead the Checkers offense in the postseason.
- Andrew Poturalski- It would not be right to leave the Checkers leading scorer off this list, now would it? After getting a decent taste of what AHL action was like last year for the Checkers, Andrew Poturalski had himself a breakout season, tallying 19 goals and 33 assists in 74 games. His shot looked noticeably faster and also had a quicker release than compared to the year prior. He is similar to Wallmark in that he stays patient on offense and for the most part does not force any play that is not there. He has enough offensive skill to deke past opposing defenders in his way and create scoring opportunities all by himself when he has to. Poturalski also skates the puck up for the Checkers through the neutral zone when they are on the power play, and he demonstrates great poise each time he carries the puck. His strength is one of the biggest weaknesses of his game. Larger defenders can easily push him off the puck if they take the correct angles on him, and he is not fast enough to to consistently blow past even slower defenders at the NHL level. But for now while he is playing for the Checkers, he needs to have a big series to give Charlotte a chance to win.
Two key Checkers defensemen
- Hadyn Fleury- It is time to see how the Hurricanes former top ten draft pick fares in professional playoff hockey. He has steadily improved throughout the season, getting better as each month has passed. In 69 games played he tallied 7 goals and 19 assists, to place him tied for fifth all time in Checkers rookie history for assists in a season. Fleury has done a solid job of keeping the puck moving when on offense and moving the puck through the neutral zone on the breakout. He is a strong defender who does not allow opposing players to push him off his position and he has also improved as a one on one defender as the year has gone on. His biggest asset this year has been his hockey sense. You don’t see him forcing plays on the breakout, and he does not panic when opposing players rush at him on offense, Fleury still needs to get better at heading the power play, and his acceleration is also one of the weaker points to his game. But he has had a strong first season at the professional level and will get a chance to put an exclamation point on it with a strong playoff performance.
- Trevor Carrick- I have been a little down on Trevor Carrick this year, but I think this first round series is where he picks his game up. After having an okay start to the season, he suffered an injury that caused him to miss 18 straight games. It clearly took him out of the rhythm that he had been playing in for the past two years. In 57 games Carrick put up 4 goals and 12 assists, numbers that were far different from years prior. He does a terrific job moving the puck on the breakout, and he makes sure to get as many pucks as he can at the net when he is on offense. Now I think that he is due for a big performance. In seasons past, he has once or twice had a hot stretch where he might put up 5-10 points in a 10-15 game stretch. That never happened this season, and I expect him to finally break out of the shell that he has been in most of the year and play like the Trevor Carrick that everyone knows him to be.
The Checkers goalie
- Tom McCollum- Not even Nostradamus could have foreseen Tom McCollum as the goalie to lead the Checkers to the playoffs, but that is exactly what happened. Starting the season, highly-touted prospect Alex Nedeljkovic would have been a best bet, as would veteran AHLer Michael Leighton. Someone looking for a dark horse could have taken Daniel Altshuller. But when Michael Leighton was felled by injury just before the trade deadline, the organization moved aggressively to add veteran AHLer Tom McCollum on loan. The 27-year old McCollum has been a rock since being acquired, notching an 11-2-4 record with a 2.10 goals against average and .926 save percentage since being acquired. To pull off a first round upset against the top-seeded Chicago Wolves, the Checkers will need more of the same from McCollum.
Part 2 targeted for mid-day on Thursday will break down the match up and keys to the series against the Chicago Wolves.
For updates and insight throughout the Checkers playoff run, please follow me at Twitter=@CheckingIn28.