Division leaders ready to shake off rust

Photo: Gregg Forwerck

📝 by Patrick Williams

Rest? Rust?

Both? Who knows?

Let’s see.

The Charlotte Checkers, Stockton Heat, and Utica Comets all play their first postseason games tonight following extended time off. (The Springfield Thunderbirds are back at it Wednesday, and the Chicago Wolves open their postseason on Thursday.)

Utica and Stockton have been off since their regular-season finales on April 30. Charlotte has not played since April 23, a 2-1 road win against the Providence Bruins. Each of the clubs earned first-round byes. Meanwhile their upcoming opponents have been plenty busy.

The Rochester Americans, who visit Utica tonight for Game 1 of their best-of-five North Division Semifinals series, engaged in two emotional first-round overtime wins against the Belleville Senators to earn this opportunity. The Bridgeport Islanders won back-to-back overtime clashes with Providence in opening-round play last week; now the Islanders host the Checkers tonight in Game 1 of their Atlantic Division semifinal. And in the Pacific Division, the Bakersfield Condors fended off the stubborn Abbotsford Canucks to set up a meeting with the Heat beginning tonight in Stockton.

Now it’s time to chase a Calder Cup.

Charlotte head coach Geordie Kinnear won a Calder Cup in 1995 as a New Jersey Devils prospect. Between his eight seasons as a hard-nosed defenseman, 11 AHL seasons as an assistant coach, five more campaigns running his own bench, and even a season spent working with Ben Groulx with the Syracuse Crunch, there is not much that Kinnear has not seen in nearly three decades in pro hockey.

This situation for his Checkers ― 17 days between games ― is different even for Kinnear, though.

“We have a real good group that remains focused throughout the two-and-a-half weeks,” Kinnear said after his Checkers finished practice in Bridgeport on Monday. “But let’s be honest, you’re off that long period of time, [it is not the same as] Bridgeport playing a series.

“We’re ready to go.”

In Utica, Comets head coach Kevin Dineen played 19 National Hockey League seasons. He has spent nine seasons as an AHL head coach, winning the Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award as the league’s top coach in his first season. He guided the Florida Panthers for parts of three seasons, won a Stanley Cup as a Chicago Blackhawks assistant coach, and led the Canadian national women’s team to an Olympic gold medal in 2014. In his first season in Utica, Dineen took the Comets to the Eastern Conference’s best regular-season record at 43-20-8-1 (.660).

Much like Kinnear, Dineen’s hockey experiences are vast, though this situation is different even for him. But it is just one more test that a Calder Cup run will ask.

“Nothing you can do about it,” Dineen reasoned. “So you just deal with it the best you can. At the end of it, I see [Rochester’s] two emotional overtime wins and feeling like they’re already in the playoff run, and that certainly is an advantage. But you just have to look at it as a positive and say that we had a chance to get everybody feeling good. We’ll certainly have to have a simplified game early.”

Two roster additions for Utica have come from defenseman Shakir Mukhamadullin and forward Chase Stillman, both recent first-round draft picks by New Jersey. Mukhamadullin, the 20th overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, spent this season in the Kontinental Hockey League, playing 34 contests with Ufa Salavat Yulayev. Stillman, the 29th overall pick in 2021, is coming off a junior season in the Ontario Hockey League and what Dineen called a “hard playoff series” with Peterborough.

Dineen also reported that his Comets are in relatively good health, with forward Frederik Gauthier, who has not played since April 1, “slowly getting back up to speed.”

“The Devils have done an excellent job of providing us with the depth that we’ll need to make sure we’re able to ice a real competitive team.”

First-year Stockton head coach Mitch Love won the Pieri Award in 2021-22, and knows that while any Pacific Division match-up this round would test his players, a meeting with the Condors in the AHL’s version of the Battle of Alberta certainly qualifies.

“I thought our division got better as the year wore on,” Love said. “We had a hot start to the first half of the year and then started to get heavily challenged, but it wasn’t because we were going away from what we were doing. It’s just teams [were] getting better. We’re going to have to be at our ‘A’ game each and every night if we want to come out of our first-round playoff match-up. We’re well aware of that.

“It’s a good division, man.”

For the Checkers, they also have used this time to heal up from an intense second-half push in which they went 16-3-2-1 in March and April to claim the Atlantic Division regular-season title with a dual affiliation with the Florida Panthers and Seattle Kraken. Charlotte should be healthy, at least to start.

“I mean, it always does [help],” Kinnear said of the recent rest. “But, you know, it’s playoffs, guys paying the price to keep the puck out and paying a price to take a hit to make a play. There are going to be guys [who will be] banged up.”

Kinnear and the Charlotte coaching staff used their practice time creatively. The Checkers staged a pair of team scrimmages, complete with three periods and on-ice officials to mimic game action as closely as possible.

But for someone like Checkers defenseman Chase Priskie, this series represents his first opportunity to experience postseason hockey as a pro. The COVID-19 pandemic halted his 2019-20 rookie season, and his time with Syracuse last season ended without playoff action. To boot, he has had this long hiatus.

Now that wait has ended.

“Our group is extremely excited to finally start playing playoff games,” Priskie said. “I think everyone’s extremely motivated after the last two years of not really having any carrot at the end of the journey to chase after.

“The wait really rejuvenated our group, and we’re ready to get going.”