by Nicholas Niedzielski | AHL On The Beat
From the outset of his tenure behind the bench for the Checkers, Mike Vellucci had a set of goals for what his team would accomplish during the regular season.
“At the beginning of the year we said that we’re a playoff team,” said Vellucci. “We said we’re going to make sure we make the playoffs, we’re going to improve our special teams on both sides and we’re going to score more goals.”
With a win last Saturday over Hershey, the Checkers were able to check the big one off his list.
Charlotte has punched its ticket to the Calder Cup Playoffs for the second straight season, giving the club consecutive postseason appearances for the first time in franchise history.
“It’s great,” said team captain Patrick Brown. “It shows improvement and that we’re moving in the right direction. Winning is a culture and when it starts to become a habit, that’s good.”
Vellucci’s confidence in his squad’s ability to make the playoffs stems from his history behind the bench. In 13 seasons as head coach of the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers, Vellucci never had a team fail to make the postseason. He wasn’t about to have his streak snapped after his jump to the pros.
“My goal was always to make sure that we’re on the up climb the whole way,” said Vellucci. “We build and build and then we peak at the right time. We’re playing with confidence and grit and heart. We want to win and to win at all costs. That’s the way I’ve always looked at it, make sure we’re peaking at the right time.”
The locker room has quickly bought into Vellucci’s winning pedigree.
“He’s been awesome,” said Brown. “He’s a great players’ coaches, he knows when to work us and he knows when to give us rest. That’s been great all year.”
None of that is to say the team’s mission is accomplished. Far from it, in fact.
“Just making the playoffs isn’t good enough,” said Vellucci. “Now we have to find ways to win in the playoffs and grind it out and win those series. We want that winning mentality and the only way you get it is by going through the playoffs and winning in the playoffs.”
A good chunk of this Checkers team got a taste of the playoffs a year ago, when they surged into the postseason but fell in a decisive Game Five in their opening-round series. With that experience, they’re now ready to push beyond that.
“Everyone says that playoff hockey is harder, it’s a different animal and we learned that last year,” said Brown. “We had a lot of fun, I wish we would have made a deeper run but we’re planning on doing that this year.”
The drive to make a deep run into the playoffs goes even beyond the desire to win a title. With the Hurricanes mired in a postseason drought, this Checkers team offers up the chance for some top prospects to learn the highly valued art of winning.
“We want winners,” said Vellucci, who also serves as Carolina’s assistant general manager. “We want guys who know what it takes to win in a playoff series. The regular season is one thing, the playoffs are different. We want guys who know how to win and play through that grind of playing and traveling for that extra two months. That all makes you a winner and we want to develop that down here so that when they do get the NHL they’re winners and they hate to lose and they’ll do whatever it takes.”
For the players on the ice, a strong performance during this postseason run could be a direct lead-up to a strong showing in next year’s NHL training camp.
“It’ll give them a leg up because like I said, Carolina wants winners,” said Vellucci. “For the players, the best thing is for them to show that they want to win and that they can go through a long playoff grind and play that kind of hockey.”
With a chance to bring that winning culture to the organization, the Checkers are prepared for what they hope is a few more weeks of hockey.
“I feel that right now we’re playing some of our best hockey,” said Vellucci. “We’re committed to winning.”