Up and down we go, friends. The Charlotte Checker roller coaster is riding right along.
The Checkers, through the first month+ of the year, have looked about like what they are: a young team with a lot of new faces trying to find their identity. I headlined when the season started that they lost a 30-goal scorer, one of their best two-way centers, all three of their captains, and a few other important, ultra-talented others from their championship run that have graduated to the Canes. One night they’ll have a great showing and fill the net up, showcasing a steady defense and solid goaltending, the next they’ll look lost in their own end, hanging their goalies out to dry with odd-man rush after odd-man rush (hmmm… That sounds kind of familiar, actually). So, with three weeks’ worth of games to cover (eight games) and a player spotlight featuring a player that I think a lot of people are asking questions about at the moment, we’ll jump right in.
Charlotte Checkers 2, Utica Comets 8
So, yeah, this happened a couple weeks ago. We won’t dwell here long. The Checkers got punched in the mouth early and never recovered. Alex Nedeljkovic was pulled with about five minutes to go in the first period, with a sweet save percentage of .400 (three goals allowed on five shots), and Forsberg didn’t fare much better allowing the five more on 24 shots. Utica is a good team with some really nice young prospects, and they showcased their skill on this night. This was actually part of a month of October that saw the Comets race out to an 8-0-0 record (they’ve since lost five of six in November). The Checkers’ goals were scored by Eetu Luostarinen and Hunter Shinkaruk, playing on his former home arena, but there was not much good to speak of on this one.
Charlotte Checkers 7, Syracuse Crunch 3
Ugly as the previous night was, the Checkers did what they do and bounced back with a solid win in Syracuse the following night. A night after falling behind 3-0 seemingly before the Zamboni doors shut, the Checkers came out flying and potted four goals in the opening frame to carry a commanding lead into the first intermission. They never eased up either, leaving the rink happy with a 7-3 romp over a solid Syracuse squad. Chase Priskie was the star in this one, scoring his first AHL goal and adding three helpers. Brian Gibbons had his own four-point night with a pair each of goals and assists, and Morgan Geekie chipped in a goal and two assists of his own. Anton Forsberg started less than 24 hours after playing ¾ of a game, but played well, making 31 saves. While Nedeljkovic has really struggled early (more on that later), Forsberg has started the year pretty steadily and consistently, keeping the Checkers in just about every game he’s played in.
Charlotte Checkers 3, Lehigh Valley Phantoms 2 (SO)
Two is a streak, right? The Checkers returned home and won back-to-back games for the first time all year, this time thanks to Kyle Wood’s seventh-round shootout goal – the first and only goal scored in those seven rounds. Chase Priskie stayed hot, not waiting long to score his second professional goal, ripping home a well-placed wrister off a shorthanded odd-man rush in the first period. He’s very, very good. Kyle Wood then put the Checkers up 2-1 in the second with his first goal in the organization, but the Phantoms would knot the score midway through period three. Anton Forsberg didn’t see a ton of action (24 saves), but was very timely when the Checkers had breakdowns and he hadn’t seen a ton of action. As Petr Mrazek will tell you, that isn’t always easy. The Checkers carried play for long stretches, but couldn’t find the regulation or overtime winner, largely thanks to Alex Lyon. You may or may not recognize that name, but I certainly do. He’s the guy that made 94 saves on 95 shots in the 5OT win the Phantoms had over the Checkers last postseason. Madness. He was very good again (he must love playing Charlotte), making 36 saves, but Forsberg completely shut the gates during overtime and the shootout to allow Wood to play the hero. This also ran Forsberg’s record to a perfect 4-0-0 on the year.
Charlotte Checkers 2, Lehigh Valley Phantoms 3
The division-rival Phantoms, unfortunately, would exact a little revenge the next night back at Bojangles’ Coliseum. Alex Nedeljkovic had his best game of the season thus far, stopping 39 of 42 shots – including 34 of 35 through 40 minutes – but still could not get in the win column. Jake Bean and Janne Kuokkanen were the Charlotte goal scorers, but this is probably better known for being the infamous Jamie McGinn game. Brock’s big bro drilled Lehigh Valley defenseman Chris Bigras late and high, and was ejected in the first period (then released after one more game). The team took way too many penalties in general, and while they did kill 7/8, the Phantoms were able to generate some offense and pick up some momentum from their man advantages. The Checkers took a 2-1 lead into the third, but Lehigh Valley scored two goals just over two minutes apart early in the third to steal the victory.
Charlotte Checkers 1, Cleveland Monsters 2 (OT)
After alternating wins and losses to begin the year, the Checkers showed that their first win “streak” was not the end of the pendulum. This game had a bigger story than the box score, though, as Stelio Mattheos suited up for his first game since his testicular cancer diagnosis. Awesome to see Stelios back on the ice playing the greatest game in the world. Mattheos started the game in the top six, on a line with Janne Kuokkanen and Eetu Luostarinen, which goes to show how highly-regarded the scoring forward is. He would finish the night with two shots on goal and a -1 rating. Nedeljkovic followed up his best game of the year with… a new best game of the year. Ned was awesome all game long, allowing just one goal on 32 shots through 60 minutes. Eetu Luostarinen would tip home a Kyle Wood point shot, which ran the rookie’s point streak to six games, but the Checkers really struggled to generate consistent offense against a Cleveland defense that’s suppressed goals and shots effectively all year long. In overtime, Cleveland’s diminutive captain, whose name was written in such small font I couldn’t make it out, was awarded a penalty shot and finished to end this one. That was a Nathan Gerbe joke. I know I’m not very funny. Nedeljkovic deserved better after the last two games, but his record fell to 0-4-1 nonetheless.
Charlotte Checkers 1, Cleveland Monsters 5
Two days later the Checkers were back in Cleveland to try to split the weekend series, and… they didn’t, running their losing streak to three games. Anton Forsberg had his first clunker of the year (I’m not counting the aforementioned Utica debacle), although the team in front of him didn’t do him any favors. This was another game where the Checkers didn’t come out of the gate ready to play, as Cleveland jumped out to an early multi-goal lead and never relinquished it. Steven Lorentz, who has played well this year, would give them a lifeline when he displayed his speed and work ethic early in the second to cut the lead to 2-1. He cut in the attacking zone wide, fired a shot, and quickly collected and banged home his own rebound in impressive fashion. However, the Monsters would get a back-breaking shorthanded goal about midway through the second period, and the Checkers went quietly from there. In addition, Stelio Mattheos suffered what head coach Ryan Warsofsky described as a “probably long-term” lower-body injury in just his second game back, as the kid just can’t seem to catch a break. This one just wasn’t a lot of fun.
Charlotte Checkers 2, Springfield Thunderbirds 1
After being called out by their head coach for not competing hard enough, the Checkers brought some heart in this game (which, side note, happened to be Aleksi Saarela’s return to Bojangles’ Coliseum). It was physical and penalty filled, but also consisted of much more attention to detail and defensive competence. Steven Lorentz opened the scoring in the middle frame, but Springfield quickly answered. Neither team generated a ton of great chances, but both goalies were sharp when they needed to be. Alex Nedeljkovic was on his game for a third straight outing, making 20 saves on 21 shots. Not a high quantity, but absolutely had some high-quality ones in there. Chris Driedger matched him save for save for most of the game, though, and it looked for a while like Ned may not be rewarded once again. Then late in the third period with the Checkers on the penalty kill, AHL journeyman Colin Markison raced through the neutral zone on a partial breakaway, and fired his first goal as a Checker through Driedger’s five hole to finally get Ned into the win column.
Charlotte Checkers 3, Springfield Thunderbirds 4 (OT)
So, I guess the optimistic view is that the Checkers have still picked up points in two straight and in three of four! Charlotte’s defensive resilience from the night before did not carry over, and Springfield was able to steal a win that the Checkers seemingly had in the bag, a somewhat alarming emerging trend of not being able to hold leads late. Springfield actually jumped out to a 2-0 lead after 20 minutes (the other alarming trend of not starting games on time… Tough to win consistently when you don’t start or close games well), but Roland McKeown: Point Collector (.67 points/game thus far in 2019-20, nearly twice the 0.35 he had last season) and Max McCormick would tie things up with goals 37 seconds apart near the midway point of the second period. In the third, Gauthier would score a beauty on one of his patented power moves with a backhand finish, and the Checkers seemed to be headed towards a win as the seconds ticked off the clock. However, the T-Birds tied it with less than a minute to go, and won it in overtime when Anton Forsberg had a bit of a brain cramp that led to an easy goal. A tough way to finish, no doubt, and Forsberg has seemed to take whatever bad juju Ned had to begin the year, but still a 3-of-4-point weekend.
Player Spotlight: Alex Nedeljkovic
I’ve told you plenty of times over the years that goalies are harder than any other position to evaluate, so I’m not really going to go overboard with trying to tell you what he was doing poorly to begin the year or what he’s since corrected. But, I’ve seen a lot of spicy takes on Twitter and elsewhere and just decided I want to put it out here: Ned is fine, so quit it.
Some players just start slow. Heck, I think we all know even Sebastian Aho does it. And I don’t know why that is. I doubt those players even know, or else they’d probably change it. Nedeljkovic is beginning to earn that label as well. He’s still a young goalie though, and it’s really not the end of the world. He’s also shown how he can elevate his game when the spotlight shines brightest (2016 World Juniors where he was the best goalie in the tournament, the 2014 Plymouth Whalers team he basically single-handedly carried to the OHL playoffs, both his NHL appearances, etc.). He just has to learn how to maintain focus and establish some consistency in his game, which isn’t particularly uncommon for young goalies. He still has outstanding athleticism that allow him to make phenomenal, acrobatic saves when he seems out of the play, plays the puck extremely well for a goalie, and, I believe, still absolutely has the upside to not just start, but be a high-end starter in the National Hockey League. The last three games he’s seemed to find his game (.938 save percentage). I expect this run to continue for a while, as he’s a goalie that can catch fire and carry a team for long stretches. Before long he’s going to be ready to get a look in the same “1B” role that Reimer is currently occupying. As a restricted free agent this summer, the Hurricanes really need to gauge what they have in him. They certainly aren’t going to let him go for nothing, even if they love Kochetkov and think he’s the next Vasilevskiy, and giving him a bridge deal while handing him the 2020-21 backup job without really playing him in the NHL this year wouldn’t make a lot of sense. I expect Ned to get the call and see at least 10-15 starts within a couple months, regardless of what happens at the NHL level with Reimer and Mrazek. When he gets it, I expect him to prove he belongs.
Stats (goals-assists-points; 12 games unless otherwise noted)
Morgan Geekie: 4-5-9
Brian Gibbons: 3-5-8 (6 games)
Chase Priskie: 2-6-8
Roland McKeown: 1-7-8
Eetu Luostarinen: 5-2-7 (10 games)
Jake Bean: 1-6-7 (11 games)
Julien Gauthier: 5-1-6 (10 games)
Janne Kuokkanen: 2-3-5
Fredrik Claesson: 0-4-4 (6 games)
Max McCormick: 1-3-4 (8 games)
Steven Lorentz: 3-1-4
Gustav Forsling: 1-2-3
Hunter Shinkaruk: 1-1-2 (9 games)
Clark Bishop: 0-1-1
Anton Forsberg: 4-1-1; 3.22 GAA; .890 SV%
Alex Nedeljkovic: 1-4-1; 3.29 GAA; .885 SV%