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Checkers Set to Open Playoffs at Home

Charlotte hosts Chicago Wolves in first two games of first-round playoff series

by Michael Smith @MSmithCanes /

CHARLOTTE - It was just after 9 a.m. on Thursday, and Bojangles' Coliseum was quiet.

Then, signs of life awoke the historical building. Zambonis scraped the ice sheet clean. Players gathered in the hallway for their ritualistic soccer games. Then, skate blades carved into the pristine ice, shots tickled the twine and rang off the post, bodies banged against the glass and whistles blew to signify the beginning of the morning skate.

It was a gameday for the Charlotte Checkers - a playoff gameday, their first since 2013.

Video: Ulf Samuelsson: "The Pressure Is On"

"It's an exciting group," first-year head coach Ulf Samuelsson said. "They worked hard to get here, and we're ready to go out there, work hard and have some fun."

"The boys feel good and confident," Phil Di Giuseppe said. "The little stretch we had, I think that's going to give us a boost. Everyone's pretty positive and looking forward to tonight's game."

Flip the calendar back a few months to early January. The Checkers were tied for last place in the American Hockey League. The team then ran off a 27-10-6 record over the last three months of the season, including a scorching 13-2-4 stretch in the final 19 games, to qualify for the playoffs on the last day of the season.

"The right things were happening at the right times. Obviously it helped to get Tommy McCollum. You never want to lose Leighton, because he's such a good goalie, but McCollum stepped in and did an unbelievable job," Jake Chelios said. "Having a good goalie will really enhance a hot team. Guys really started to feel it."

"We have a good team. The last 30 games of the season was really good from us," Lucas Wallmark said. "We are confident in ourselves, and hopefully we can start up here tonight with a good game and a win."

The team carries a seven game point streak (4-0-3) into the first round against the Chicago Wolves, who finished in first place in the Central Division.

"We're a confident bunch right now. Heading into playoffs, you want to be the hotter team, and I think we've done that this year," Chelios said. "We're the lower seed here, but you want to look at all the success we've had in the last couple of months and take that into playoffs."

The Checkers posted a 2-5-1 record this season against the Wolves, the St. Louis Blues' top affiliate.

"They definitely got the best out of us. They have a tremendous team, and we have a lot of respect for them," Samuelsson said. "They're good on the rush, and they have maybe the best top line in AHL hockey. We've got our work cut out for us."

Games 1 and 2 of this best-of-five first round match-up will be played in Charlotte before the series shifts to Chicago for at least a game and whatever is necessary after that. The Checkers notched a 27-10-1 record at home, setting franchise records for wins and points percentage (.724).

Tweet from @MSmithCanes: Checkers on the ice at Bojangles ahead of Game 1 vs. Chicago.

"With any team, you stress winning at home," Di Giuseppe said. "I think that will work in our favor."

Starting the series - a short one, at that - at home could be a big advantage for the Checkers.

"If you win the first two," Samuelsson said with a smile.

"We have been good at home all year," Wallmark said. "Now we have a good chance to do something good here in the first two games."

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