By Brandon Stanley
At the time of my last write-up, things didn’t look all that great for the Checkers. The defense was spotty. The offense and goaltending were pretty inconsistent. Overall, it really just looked like a transition year. Maybe a chance for young guns to get a long look and hopefully run with it, but to be honest the squad looked to probably not even be a playoff team. Alas, it’s amazing what two weeks can do for you. Now, the Checkers are in great shape, having ripped off a 7-1-0 record to roar into 2020 – and the playoff picture – on a very high note. The offense has found its footing with contributions from all over the lineup, both goalies have put forth outstanding outings, and suddenly the Calder Cup hangover looks to be over. Adjusted for games played (or by looking at points percentage), the Checkers now sit third in the Atlantic, after completing sweeps over two of the top three teams in the division. There is still half a season to be played, and this is clearly an example of how quickly things can change, but there is certainly a big arrow pointing very much “up” next to this team.
Game by game
12/17 – Checkers 6, Hartford Wolfpack 3
This game didn’t start particularly well. The Checkers were coming off a last-minute loss to Syracuse three days prior, and I groaned a bit when Vinni Lettieri did his best Alex Ovechkin impression just five minutes in, ripping a nasty one-timer high glove on Nedeljkovic for a powerplay goal. But from that point on, it was really all Checkers. Midway through the first, Colin Markison tipped home a point shot from Frederik Claesson. Late in the period on a 4-on-3 powerplay (unit: Bean, Priskie, Kuokkanen, Gauthier. Fun.), Gauthier did the same off a Bean wrister. The Checkers then dominated the second, scoring three unanswered from Spencer Smallman, Max McCormick, and Claesson. For Smallman, it was his first AHL goal. McCormick’s came just 20 seconds later, then Claesson’s four minutes after that to put the game out of reach in relatively short order. The Wolfpack fought back a bit in the third, as old friend Phil Di Giuseppe and Tim Gettinger scored goals to make it 5-3, but Gauthier sealed it late with an empty netter. Coming off the aforementioned tough loss and facing an early deficit, the Checkers responded to the adversity about as well as one could hope. They outshot the Wolfpack 42-22, including 19-3 in the first period. All the more impressive, they chased Igor Shesterkin, one of the best goalie prospects in the world and the heir to the King’s throne in New York, who carries a .932 save percentage on the year. Also of note, Oliwer Kaski played his first Checkers game, picking up an assist in the rout. In all, twelve different Checkers had at least one point, led by Claesson (1G, 2A) and Gauthier (2-1) with three apiece. This very well may be the game we look back on as the turning point in the Checkers season.
12/18 – Checkers 7, Hartford Wolfpack 1
Unfortunately for Hartford, the onslaught didn’t end there. The next night the Checkers came right back out swinging. This feels like a good time to point out that Hartford has the third best record in the AHL, and are the top team in the Atlantic Division; the Checkers just completely annihilated them. Captain Roland McKeown got things started less than two minutes in, blasting home a slapshot off a nifty backhand pass from Spencer Smallman. Lorentz then made a beautiful, patient deke to the backhand to out-wait Hartford netminder Adam Huska and make it 2-0. Next, Janne Kuokkanen got in on the fun on the powerplay, as he made a smooth pass at the blue line to spring Gauthier with some open ice. The big man did what he does, using his strength and speed to get to the net. The initial shot was saved, but Kuokkanen followed up and slid the rebound five-hole to extend the lead. Finally, newcomer Oliwer Kaski continued to seamlessly fit into his new team with a point blast that beat Huska cleanly to the far side, just under the blocker, just over the pad. But that was just the first period. Mildly eventful I suppose. Max McCormick and Julien Gauthier – on one of his patented power moves that few players can pull off – would add second period goals, while Di Giuseppe would continue to be quite a thorn in his old team’s side, scoring Hartford’s only goal. That was pretty much a wrap save for a Gustav Forsling “for good measure” marker in the third. Anton Forsberg didn’t see much action in the opening frame as the Checkers took a stranglehold on the game, but faced 25 shots in the final 40 minutes. He played an exceptionally, with 28 total saves. Hard to argue this wasn’t the Checkers’ most complete game of the year, dominating a very good team. Gauthier had three points for the second straight game (if you recall, these were the first two games following his demotion back to Charlotte. I don’t think the kid wants to go back to the minors again), and Jake Bean matched that output with three assists. Kuokkanen and Kaski added a goal and an assist apiece, and Hartford, I’m guessing, was ready to leave North Carolina.
12/21 Checkers 2, Lehigh Valley Phantoms 3
The Checkers’ home stand continued with a weekend series, welcoming Lehigh Valley to Bojangles’ Coliseum. The first game was a tough one, as the Checkers fell behind 2-0 in the second period, gave up a third with about eight minutes to play in the third, and then couldn’t quite complete a late, valiant effort to come back. Nedeljkovic’s numbers look pretty mediocre for the game, but he actually played very well. He may wish he had controlled the rebound on the second goal a little better as he didn’t get it into the corner or elsewhere away from danger (lots of traffic out front, but the rebound kind of sat right in front of the cage and led to a scramble, then eventual tap-in goal), but the goals he allowed were on a backdoor tap-in off a great pass and a snipe on a breakaway where the Charlotte defense went to sleep. Otherwise, he made many big saves to keep the Checkers within striking distance. Arch-nemesis Alex Lyon (he of the ridiculous 94-save-on 95-shot-win over Charlotte in the 5OT playoff game two years ago who always bring his A++ game in this match up) was up to his usual shenanigans again, making save after save and not cracking until there were under five minutes to play. With the game starting to wind down and things looking bleak, Priskie fed Forsling for a one-timer, which was tipped home by Max McCormick. Then, just 31 seconds later, Forsling again made a really nice play, gaining the offensive zone and finding a streaking Clark Bishop cutting in on the far wing with a pinpoint pass just out of the Lehigh Valley defender’s reach. Bishop corralled it and fired a perfect shot short-side on Lyon, and with 3:36 left, it was a brand new ballgame all of a sudden. For Bishop, that was goal number *checks notes*… one? First goal of the year? Yep. First goal of the year. Anyway. Unfortunately, that’s as close as they’d get, as Lyon went back to shutting it down from that point on, and the two-game win streak and good feelings temporarily dissipated.
12/22 Checkers 4, Lehigh Valley Phantoms 2
Luckily for the Checkers, retribution awaited the following night. The Checkers answered the bell, bouncing back to split the series and wrap up a rock-solid 3-1-0 home stand. The defense stepping up, especially with a laundry list of forwards on the injury report and out of the lineup, were a big story in this one. Lehigh Valley scored just over five minutes into the game, marking the fifth time in six games the Checkers gave up the opening goal. The Checkers would answer back quickly in the second period, as Forsling caught a D-to-D pass from Priskie, walked down the boards, and found the twine with a seeing-eye wrister from the half-wall. It was a nice display of his patience and footwork, and came at the end of a hard-working forechecking shift from the Bishop-Pritchard-Smallman line. Late in the second, with the Checkers shorthanded, McKeown and Lorentz teamed up for a beautiful display of turning defense to offense. McKeown got a deflection off a pass in the defensive zone, and that disruption allowed Lorentz to get aggressive using his speed and instincts to harass the Phantoms’ puck carrier along the wall while he tried to re-gain control. Lorentz would steal the puck, and McKeown would jump into the rush with him. Dave Gust crashed the net hard, allowing room for Lorentz to push wide and drop a pass back to a wide-open McKeown in the slot. The captain would beat JF Berube with a wrist shot to the blocker side, and the Checkers would take that 2-1 lead into period three. Lehigh Valley would tie it with nearly midway through the third (despite a pretty obvious high stick to Janne Kuokkanen), but Chase Priskie’s point wrister just a minute later would answer right back. Lorentz added an empty netter to seal the deal. Forsberg had a really nice game with 26 saves, Lorentz and Priskie had a goal and an assist each, Spencer Smallman stretched his point streak to four games with a helper, and the Checkers were right back in the win column.
12/28 Cleveland Monsters 1, Checkers 5
Following the holiday break, the Checkers hit the road to embark on a seven-game trip. Immediately they showed the momentum they’d built up before the layoff was still in the bag. Just two minutes into the game, Spencer Smallman continued to be a horse down low, winning a battle in the corner then getting to the front of the net to bang home a pass from Morgan Geekie. The rest of the first was tight-checking with few chances to come by, save for a late Cleveland powerplay that saw the game tied at one when Nedeljkovic couldn’t find a rebound off a point blast. Things would open up considerably in the second, mostly for the visitors. Charlotte controlled the pace of the game, dominating possession and out-shooting the Monsters 15-6 in the frame. Julien Gauthier would bang home the Checkers’ second greasy goal of the game on a powerplay. It was set up by nice puck movement, and a slick seam pass from Kuokkanen to Priskie. The young defenseman settled it then quickly set up Gauthier with a pinpoint shot-pass for the easy tap in. Though the momentum was decidedly in the Checkers favor, the Monsters entered period three just one shot away from tying it up, thanks in large part to goalie Matiss Kivlenieks. Undeterred, the Checkers somehow got even more dominant in the final frame, piling up 18 more shots – to just five from a Cleveland team trying to mount a comeback – and keeping things pretty easy for Ned. Claesson would double the lead about five minutes into the third, then McCormick (empty netter) and Forsling would add insurance markers just ten seconds apart late in the game. Forsling and Claesson both had a goal and a helper, Priskie picked up two assists, and Morgan Geekie had an assist in his return to the lineup following a lower body concern. Oliwer Kaski continued to be an offensive presence, firing a team-high five shots. He nearly scored as well on a booming slap shot, but it was waved off on a horrid goalie interference call, completely sold by Kivlenieks after the shot beat him cleanly. McCormick was never in the blue paint, never touched him. Puck don’t lie though, I guess, because Claesson’s goal came about 30 seconds later. Nedeljkovic, playing nearby his hometown of Parma, Ohio, saved 18-of-19 for the win.
12/30 Cleveland Monsters 1, Checkers 3
Two days later the Checkers were back at it in Cleveland for a noon matinee, but the gameplay was more of the same. Julien Gauthier got the ball rolling early by blowing through the neutral zone with speed, making a couple crisp moves to get around the Cleveland defensemen, then firing a smart shot low to the far side. Veini Vehvilainen made the initial pad stop, but Max McCormick was crashing hard to poke in the rebound for a 1-0 lead. Both teams would trade chances in the first, but other than that goal there were no scoring plays to come by. Anton Forsberg was very good, facing and stopping ten shots in the period. Then, early in the second, Clark Bishop lost a battle in front of the net and Forsberg couldn’t control a point shot, leaving a juicy rebound for an easy goal to make it 1-1. Period two would end at that score. The third period was the most eventful of the afternoon, but honestly that still isn’t saying much, as both teams’ defenses came ready to play. Most chances were to the outside, and the goalies played very strong games when the tougher chances did come. However, about midway through the third, Steven Lorentz continued to make things happen. He forced a turnover in the neutral zone, gained the offensive zone with speed, and dropped a pass for a jumping Oliwer Kaski. The Finnish defenseman stepped in and fired a gorgeous wrist shot, bar and in, to put the Checkers back in front. From that point on, the Checkers’ defense mostly locked the game down. Forsberg controlled things well with timely covers to diffuse offensive pressure, while stopping 27 shots for the game, and Dave Gust locked things up with a late empty netter to bring us to our final score. Oh, and yet another shout out to Lorentz, who intercepted the pass in the defensive zone then sprung Gust to put it away. The win streak was on.
1/4 Providence Bruins 0, Checkers 4
The Checkers kicked off the new decade in style, heading up to New England to take on a good Bruins squad. Charlotte did a great job of getting to their game early on, using their speed to harass the B’s on the forecheck and control the pace of play. Once again, the Checkers continued their new, much preferred trend of getting on the board first. Just 3:59 into the game, the Checkers forced a turnover in the neutral zone, Dave Gust blew by a Providence defender and put a shot on goal, and Janne Kuokkanen followed up by banging in a rebound to put the away team in the lead early. Oh, by the way, it was Lorentz that forced the turnover, but I just figured you’d have assumed that at this point. Each team would have two powerplay opportunities in the first, but the period would end with that 1-0 score. Then, the Checkers began period two with yet another goal, again just under four minutes in. You’re probably going to laugh about how it happened… Or get bored with me repeating myself. Providence looked to be getting out of the zone, and the same dude swooped in, lifted the defender’s stick, and forced a turnover. After a bit of a sloppy, broken play, the puck bounced around and eventually found him again in the slot, and Stevie-Lo made no mistake, ripping a shot past Manny Lagace to extend the lead to two. Later in the period Max McCormick was issued a five-minute major and game misconduct for headbutting (?) someone, but a mixture of the Checker penalty kill, Alex Nedeljkovic, and the posts – seriously, the Bruins hit the post at least four times in this game. Pretty wild, but I guess sometimes you gotta be lucky to be good, eh? – were up to the task to keep the lead intact. I still haven’t seen a replay of the headbutt and it happened behind the play, so I can’t really tell you how nasty it was. The Checkers would then score a dagger early in the third, this time even quicker than they did in the previous two stanzas. Less than two minutes into the period, Julien Gauthier beautifully tipped in a Forsling point shot, pretty much ending any hope for the continuously frustrated Providence attack. Nedeljkovic finished off the shutout, facing 25 shots (it was probably basically 30, but, you know, posts don’t count for these purposes) and stopping them all. Overall, the final shot count was 43-25, including 15-4 in the final period as the Checkers just completely erased any ideas of mounting a comeback. Spencer Smallman added an empty netter late. It was assisted by Lorentz, his third point of the night. Smallman showed off his wheels in pretty impressive fashion here, completely burning the Providence defensemen that had at least two steps each on him initially, to track down the Lorentz clear and put it home. Priskie added two more assists, and the Checkers continued to chew up and spit out the competition.
1/5 Providence Bruins 1, Checkers 4
And, finally, the Checkers finished off a convincing sweep with yet another easy win. This time the early hero was Jacob Pritchard, the second year UMass-Amherst product who has spent a large chunk of the year in the ECHL. Pritchard scored each of the first two goals of the night, staking the Checkers to an early lead then giving them their initial insurance marker to boot. His first came when he slammed home a nice centering feed from Clark Bishop, and the latter after a nifty display of balance, hands, and footwork to get to the middle of the ice and fire a laser to Dan Vladar’s blocker side. Pritchard’s game has improved considerably of late. Next, Julien Gauthier would atone for the post he had hit earlier in the game, following up a drive to the net by Eetu Luostarinen and banging home a rebound goal, his team-leading 16th of the season. When Brian Gibbons added an empty netter in the third it looked like it was going to be about as perfect a sweep as one could hope for… but the final story line of the game was not to be, as Anton Forsberg – who was phenomenal nonetheless with 26 saves – lost his shutout bid, allowing the first and only goal the Bruins scored in the series in the 120th minute. Despite that disappointment, this felt like something of a statement series for the Checkers.
Since I did a player-by-player breakdown last time around, instead of a “player spotlight” this week, I’ll just look at a few other tidbits and standouts that caught my attention the last two weeks.
- Jake Bean was selected to the 2020 AHL All-Star Game. While he is very much deserving with 5 goals and 22 points on the year, I think Gauthier and his 16 goals (T-sixth in the AHL, and in fewer games than anyone ahead of him on that list) would have been just as good a candidate. That’s not to mention what it would do for the confidence of a talented young player that’s been on the Charlotte-Raleigh shuttle a large chunk of the year. Either way, Gauthier has been on fire lately, taking over games with regularity. He’s always had very good speed “for a big guy”, but now I’m taking away that little disclaimer. He’s just a damn good skater. He doesn’t look as timid in the AHL as he did at times with the big club, which led to some softer plays than I’m accustomed to seeing out of him. Hopefully the next call-up (which, who knows when that’ll come now that Willy is back) he can carry over his confidence. I’m excited to see him continue to develop, because Gauthier’s progression has been fantastic over the last year and a half.
- An underrated player who has contributed quite a bit lately is Max McCormick. The former Ottawa Senator has come up with quite a few big goals for this team, has provided a steady diet of grit and physicality (and penalty minutes, with 80 already through 30 games), and has probably been one of the team’s unsung heroes. He had nine goals and 20 points last year in the AHL, and already sits at nine goals and 17 points thus far in 2019-20. Would be nice if he didn’t headbutt anyone else, though.
- After his somewhat surprising initial struggles, Gustav Forsling has been hot of late with points in six of the last seven games. He has put up eight total points in that stretch, including three goals. Forsling is a smooth skater with hands and a heavy shot, and he does a great job of getting it through to the net. His ability to make plays from the back end has given a huge lift to the Checkers, and it isn’t a coincidence the team has taken off now that guys like Forsling and McKeown have joined Bean and Priskie as consistent point producers.
- This is the last time you’ll hear of him this week, I promise. But Steven Lorentz continues to make play after play and be one of my favorite players to watch on this team. The speed, the size (6’4, 206), the grit, the intensity… the kid brings so much to the table and just makes you want to root for him. As I’ve said many times, the question mark has always been the skill… but the deke he made to score against Hartford wasn’t one that screamed “seventh-round pick who barely earned an entry-level contract” (which, I don’t necessarily know that latter part to be true, but I know some people weren’t totally sold he’d be given one after his junior career). If those kinds of flashes become more consistent, this kid could completely blow his draft-time projections out of the water. After posting three goals and nine points in 29 games last season, he has already hit the 20-point mark (nine goals) this year, through 34 games. The growth is easily discernible. He’s going to play in the NHL, my guess is for a while.
- Another guy who plays a similar style, Spencer Smallman is finally healthy and making a noticeable difference for this team (shout out to @CanesProspects who told me to keep an eye on him a couple weeks back). He’s got a lot of nice attributes, as a speedy, grinding player with some skill. He’s very much a do-it-all type, plays the body and wins board battles with regularity, and was lauded for his leadership as a captain in juniors. The injury history is a concern, he really needs to stay healthy the rest of this season and develop, but he makes a legitimate impact seemingly every time he’s on the ice.
- I kind of alluded to this a bit earlier, but this team has found an identity, and, wouldn’t you know, it’s pretty much a mirror image of the Hurricanes’ (which, you know, makes sense being that they feed into the big club… probably want to instill that style early). There is a ton of speed all over on the roster, the defense has been stout, they kill you on the forecheck again and again, and the special teams units have been outstanding. Those 40-25 shot advantages look pretty familiar, am I right? The only difference, that I think probably gives this team an even higher ceiling if things continue this way, is that the Checkers have two excellent backstops that can steal you a win. The Canes tandem has not shown that ability very often at all. Either way, things are going well for these guys, some of the injured players are getting healthy, and the momentum is decidedly in their favor. Team’s been very fun to watch lately, and I look forward to seeing how long this hot streak rolls along.
Happy New Year, friends, I appreciate you all very much. Go Canes (and Checkers)!