For as long and grinding as the AHL season is, the first 30 games seem to have flown by. While there’s plenty of hockey left to be played, it’s hard to ignore what the Charlotte Checkers have been able to string together thus far.
Heading into their final two games before Christmas, the Checkers sit atop the AHL standings as they have for most of the season. They rattled off the best 30-game start in franchise history at 22-6-2-0 and are just the fourth AHL team in a decade to hit the 46-point mark through 30 games.
Those numbers speak for themselves on what kind of squad Charlotte is.
“As a whole I think we’re just a good solid team,” said Checkers head coach Mike Vellucci. “We don’t rely on any one person. Anybody in any given game is going to step up and help our team. It’s a complete team.”
But digging deeper into what has pushed this team to such a hot start reveals a variety of factors.
One of the most eye-popping stats from the Checkers thus far has been their success in one-goal games. Seventeen of their first 30 contests were decided by one goal and Charlotte was a staggering 13-2-2-0 in those situations.
“I don’t have any one thing other than that they believe in themselves,” said Vellucci of the source of those one-goal wins. “They know when they’re working hard or when they’re not and when they have a little more to give. Everybody is contributing. Our third line, our fourth line, defensemen joining the rush – it doesn’t matter who. We’re getting some timely goals and we never give up.”
That never-give-up mentality is a byproduct of what Vellucci points to as the identity that the team is growing into.
“We are improving in some areas,” said the head coach. “We started out wanting to get better on the penalty kill and we’re doing that. We wanted to get better defensively and we’re doing that. We just want to get better as it goes on. Our identity is that these guys never cease to amaze me. They want to win and they do whatever it takes to do that. That’s something that’s very critical to having a successful team.”
Charlotte’s strong start hasn’t been without blemishes. Most notable was a 5-1 loss on home ice to the Belleville Senators in late November, a defeat that Vellucci deemed “embarrassing” while not mincing words about his team’s effort.
That critical message didn’t fall on deaf ears, as the Checkers rattled off a 9-2-1-0 record immediately following that defeat.
“They took it to heart,” said Vellucci. “Our record since then has been good. We talk to them all the time about highs and lows and competing every game and every practice. They work hard, they practice hard and that makes the highs and lows pretty even.”
The strong response to adversity illustrates the hold that Vellucci has on the locker room.
“Having him here is great,” said team captain Patrick Brown. “Everyone has bought in and we’re playing his system to a T right now and I think that’s why we’ve been on a roll.”
While everything on the ice has been clicking for Charlotte early, the general atmosphere off the ice gets plenty of credit by players and coaches alike.
“The chemistry is very good, the guys get along great,” said Vellucci. “Everyone is rooting for each other and wants to see everyone succeed. When guys get called up everyone is happy for them, giving them high fives and wishing them good luck.”
“Everyone gets along great,” said Brown. “We’re pulling for each other and everyone is working their butt off at practice and it shows.”
There’s still plenty of hockey left to be played, but at the end of the day, strong starts to the regular season don’t automatically equate to championships. That fact isn’t lost on the Checkers, who have their eyes set on moving forward every day toward their ultimate goal.
“It sounds repetitive because I say it all the time but we have to be peaking at the right time and we have to be playing the right way,” said Vellucci. “If we continue to do that anything can happen. But the playoffs are a whole new season, it doesn’t matter what your record is going in. For us we just want to make sure we continue playing well right now, get better as individuals and as a team.”