As it meets the Hershey Bears for the second consecutive season in the American Hockey League playoffs, the Hurricanes’ top minor-league affiliate is feeling more prepared this time around.
By winning Game 1 in Hershey last week, the Charlotte Checkers had already assured themselves of a better result than last season, when the then-Albany River Rats suffered a second-round sweep at the hands of the eventual Calder Cup champions. On the heels of a 3-2 victory on Wednesday, they come in to Friday’s Game 5 in Charlotte tied at two games apiece.
Like last season, the biggest thing separating the two squads is experience, with the much-younger Checkers going up against a team featuring a handful of veterans. With that in mind, it’s interesting that experience is exactly what’s allowed the Checkers to be more successful this time.
“We were rookies last year, and even though we played a lot of minutes we were still learning,” said Zach Boychuk, now in his second full season as professional.
That was most evident in the nature of the sweep, which was not as dominant as one might think. Three of the four games went to overtime, with the Bears erasing a 2-1 deficit with four unanswered third-period goals in the other.
“That experience was the difference in the series, especially when they were scoring goals late in the third period and in overtime,” said Boychuk.
“A lot of our guys were rookies and we had to get them in against a very good team,” said Checkers coach Jeff Daniels. “What we learned last year is not to panic because it’s a 60-minute game. There are still times when we do panic a little bit and our immaturity shows, but we’re better prepared now.”
That was evident in Game 4, when goaltender Mike Murphy, now in his second season as a pro, was able to shake off an unlikely second-period goal from a sharp angle to make key saves down the stretch. The team as a whole was also able to hold down the fort when the Bears scored with two minutes left to make it a one-goal game, limiting any serious attempt at an equalizer in the closing minutes.
That learning curve demonstrates the value of the minor-league system, with players learning their lessons now before moving on to join the Hurricanes. Conversely, Hershey has several players that have already had their run at the NHL level and seem to have settled in as regulars, most notably 32-year-old Keith Aucoin, who played 53 of his 75 NHL games with the Hurricanes between 2005-2008, and 33-year-old Brian Willsie, who posted 19 goals in a full season with the Washington Capitals in 2005-06 and has 381 games of experience at the highest level.
There’s also 34-year-old Sheldon Souray, a three-time NHL All-Star defenseman with 650 games of NHL experience, who is in the minors for the first time since the 1997-98 season, mostly due to contractual reasons.
“It’s kind of surreal, almost like when I was up in the NHL and playing against some of those guys,” said Boychuk, who leads the Checkers with 56 games of NHL experience.
All of that’s part of what makes Hershey a tough but necessary draw in order to go deep into the playoffs.
“If we want to win the Calder Cup, we’ll have to go through them eventually,” said Daniels.
For the Checkers, Daniels said that Murphy would make his third consecutive start in goal. He added that he was considering a few lineup changes based on minor injuries, but did not give specifics.
A possible change has defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti entering the lineup in place of Zack FitzGerald, as FitzGerald did not take the morning skate on Friday. Sanguinetti, who was a healthy scratch in Game 4, missed much of the regular season due to hip surgery before making his return on March 16.
“To his credit, he came back a little sooner than projected,” said Daniels of Sanguinetti, a former first-round pick of the New York Rangers who was acquired by Carolina via trade last June. “You come back on a high and then kind of hit that wall conditioning-wise, but he’s battling through it. It’s tough to come back at this time of year because he has to go through the training camp phase all over again.”
Besides Sanguinetti, Matthew Pistilli was the only player at the morning skate who did not play on Wednesday, with FitzGerald the only player missing.