Just when they seemed to be gaining momentum, the Checkers lost it just as quickly.
In front of an encouraging crowd of 12,512 at Time Warner Cable arena in Charlotte for their first ever home game as an AHL franchise, the Checkers dropped a 4-2 decision to the visiting Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on Friday night.
Checkers center Jon Matsumoto led the way offensively with assists on both of his team’s goals, which were scored by Jerome Samson and Oskar Osala. While they ultimately needed more to prevail, it was the minutes following those tallies that did them in.
Particularly damaging was a sequence in the second period in which the Checkers tied the game at 1-1 just 15 seconds in to what was set to be a lengthy five-on-three power play. Matsumoto corralled the puck at the left side of Penguins’ goaltender Brad Thiessen before sending a pass through two defenders and onto the stick of Samson, who made no mistake for his team-leading third goal of the campaign.
Any energy earned from that was lost just 1:23 later when the Penguins’ Dustin Jeffrey scored his second goal of the night on a clear breakaway during the remainder of the Charlotte power play.
”It was a back breaker,” said Checkers coach Jeff Daniels. “There was a sag you could feel on the bench.”
History would repeat itself in the third, when Oskar Osala’s goal to make it 3-2 was nullified in just two minutes by Wilkes-Barre/Scranton defenseman Steve Wagner, who took advantage of Checkers goaltender Justin Pogge having lost his stick earlier in the play.
Other Penguins goals were scored on what Daniels called “mental mistakes” - a puckhandling miscue by Pogge in the first period and a defensive-zone turnover that led to a quick and uncontested shot on goal by Joe Vitale in the second. The result dropped the Checkers’ record to 1-3.
“We’re getting there,” said Daniels. “We’re not where we want to be and the record speaks for itself.”
From the parent club’s perspective in Carolina, the most encouraging thing from Friday and each of the first few games is the play of Zach Boychuk. As the last player cut from the Hurricanes’ roster prior to the NHL Premeire event in Europe, Boychuk was left disappointed but has been doing everything he can to make it back to Raleigh.
“When you get sent down you want to be a little upset and prove to them that they did the wrong thing,” said Boychuk.
“I think his attitude has been good and his work ethic has been good with and without the puck,” said Daniels. “I told him to keep doing what he’s doing.”
While he’s been playing well, the frustration for Boychuk is that offensive players like himself are most easily measured in point production. He has yet to score a goal through four games, having hit the post Friday on a play that was ultimately converted when Osala crashed the net and knocked in Boychuk’s rebound.
“The last few games I’ve played really well but just haven’t been able to put the puck in the net,” said Boychuk. “It was tough to see that puck hit the post because I pretty much had an open net.”
Boychuk added that, prior to his AHL assignment at the end of September, Hurricanes management and coaches said they would like to see him make quicker decisions with the puck that would allow him to take better advantage of his speed.
If he shows he can do that, he’ll be at the top of the list when it comes time for the Hurricanes to summon reinforcements from Charlotte. However, he’ll have to compete with the likes of Matsumoto, who was arguably the Checkers best forward on Friday, and fellow winger Jiri Tlusty, who is on a one-way contract with Carolina but is in Charlotte on a two-week conditioning stint.
Friday’s game marked Tlusty’s first competitive game in approximately five and a half months, dating back to his ACL injury during the AHL playoffs with Albany last spring. While he’s been practicing and playing in exhibition games since the middle-to-late portion of the Hurricanes’ training camp, both player and coach said they could still see the effects on Friday.
“I felt like I was on the wrong side of the puck,” said Tlusty.
“I think that he did OK, but it was probably not where he needs to be,” said Daniels.
Tlusty was a healthy scratch for the Hurricanes’ first two regular-season games in Helsinki, Finland, and while he’d rather still be with the big club, he realizes that getting games under his belt in Charlotte will be the best thing for his chances at significant NHL playing time.
“If I jumped into games with Carolina I wouldn’t be able to play as many minutes, would have a lot of the same problems and would then lose the trust of the coaches,” he said.
The Canes are currently carrying one extra forward on their west-coast swing through Vancouver, San Jose, Los Angeles and Phoenix, but just one injury could force the Hurricanes to make a phone call. For now, that call could go to Boychuk while Tlusty continues to take advantage of his conditioning stint.
One area the Canes will almost certainly make a recall is in defense, where they only have six healthy bodies on the roster where they currently sit in Vancouver. Checkers defensemen Casey Borer, Brett Carson, Bryan Rodney and Bobby Sanguinetti all have NHL experience and have forced a bit of a numbers game in Charlotte, with Michal Jordan serving as a healthy scratch on Friday.
Winger Jared Staal also did not play Friday as a coach’s decision, having gone scoreless through the first three games of the season.