By: Nick Niedzielski | AHL On The Beat Archive
It has been quite a month for the Checkers.
Heading into March, Charlotte was mired in a downward spiral that saw it fading fast from the playoff picture. From January 27 to March 5, the Checkers went 2-12-3, including logging a franchise-worst 10-game winless streak along the way. With frustration setting in and in search of some way out of their slump, the Checkers made waves at the AHL trade and loan deadline when two separate deals shipped out Zach Boychuk and T.J. Hensick and brought in Andrew Miller and Blair Jones.
Losing those two key skaters was tough for the Checkers. Boychuk, the franchise leader in games played, goals, assists and points, was beloved by the hometown fans while Hensick was a high-profile offseason acquisition who had emerged as a strong veteran presence.
But as difficult as it was to see Boychuk and Hensick go, the duo the Checkers got in return quickly showed why the moves made sense hockey-wise.
Along with a handful of fresh faces acquired by Carolina, the new-look Checkers took the ice one day later and beat Chicago in a shootout, kicking off a four-game point streak and sparking a 7-3-1 run that has propelled the team back into the thick of the playoff hunt.
A big piece of the credit for the team’s resurgence goes to those new additions.
“I think the infusion of the new personalities and the new elements of skill and speed was good for our group,” said head coach Mark Morris. “We seem to be gaining ground.”
Jones and Miller chipped in immediately, as did returning players Dennis Robertson, who has stepped in and taken on a heavy load of minutes, and especially John Muse, who has appeared in 12 of the team’s last 13 contests, going 7-3-1 and boasting a 1.85 goals-against average.
Even the more unknown commodities like Anthony Camara, who totaled nearly as many points in his first seven games as a Checkers as he did in 33 games with Providence, and Andrew Poturalski, a sought-after college standout who lit the lamp in his pro debut, have helped the Checkers’ ascension.
That early production helped boost the team out of its slump, but the key to keeping the team trending in the right direction now lies in those new players continuing to contribute.
“It’s just attention to detail,” said Morris of the biggest factor to the new players’ success. “They have lots to learn. Their focus is so key at the outset. It’s amazing how many guys find that early success, now it’s a matter of really learning how to defend and executing our systems.”
While the influx of new blood has helped sparked some life into the team, it also introduced a challenge for Morris in creating a lineup.
Shuffling line combinations around has become a normal occurrence for Morris, whether it be at practice, in warmups or even in the middle of the game. While it has produced some interesting matchups, the ever-changing lineup is a formidable challenge that the team will need to overcome, especially at this crucial juncture in the season.
“You do the best you can,” said Morris. “You try to find chemistry but sometimes it’s elusive. You just hope that the other teams are going through the same thing and that you find your game quicker than they do.”
One player who has played an integral role in keeping the Checkers’ evolving roster running smoothly has been the captain, Derek Ryan. Ryan has stood as Charlotte’s offensive catalyst all season, but has really come to life over this most recent stretch, shaking off a mini down period (at least by his standards) and racking up a staggering 10 points (5g, 5a) in the team’s last five games.
Although he is currently with the Hurricanes, where he has scored two goals in four NHL games, Ryan’s consistent production has been the Checkers’ glue all year and will be their biggest weapon down the stretch.
“Ryan really seems to have really found his game, not only for us but on these recent call ups he’s been contributing,” said Morris. “He’s been a real workhorse throughout the organization and that says a lot about his character and his compete level and how important he is to not only the Checkers but the Hurricanes. Knowing that he can score at any level is great for his confidence.”
With that losing skid behind them, the Checkers’ sights are now on securing a playoff spot. With the league’s new division alignment and playoff qualification rules, Charlotte is currently firmly entrenched in a battle with the San Jose Barracuda for the fourth Pacific Division spot. It is a unique race, as points percentage comes into play by virtue of the two clubs playing a different amount of games. That discrepancy stands as another twist in the Checkers’ challenge of making the postseason.
“It absolutely does,” said Morris on whether the lower number of games played makes a difference. “More rest time means less injuries and more energy and more focus. The difference between 76 games and 68 games is huge. We’ll really have to be on our A game to make sure that we give ourselves the best chance to get in.”
The Checkers have eight games remaining on their schedule, with each one growing in importance as season comes to an end and the playoff race grows tighter. With many of these players having gone through a tough year last season, one that saw them out of the playoff picture months before its conclusion, playing meaningful games in April is a new, exciting concept. That excitement and desire to make the playoffs becomes the Checkers biggest asset as they look to attain their ultimate goal.
“Winning creates enthusiasm,” said Morris. “It’s pretty simple.
“Finding ways to continue to keep the ball moving in the right direction is the key to finding your way into the postseason. We’ve got a big challenge ahead of us and it’s going to take all hands on deck.”