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In the System: Checkers Learning to Win Close Games

by Michael Smith / Carolina Hurricanes
Over a month into the American Hockey League’s 2010-11 season, the Charlotte Checkers have begun to mesh as a team, finding ways to win close games that they were losing earlier in the season.

Michael Smith

Before being dropped 7-3 by the Norfolk Admirals on Monday night, the Checkers (10-8-3) put together a 4-game winning streak that included pairs of wins over the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and the Adirondack Phantoms.

During that stretch, head coach Jeff Daniels praised the Checkers’ ability to apply pressure offensively in order to score timely goals and their play on special teams – the Checkers converted on 26 percent of their power plays and killed off 13 of 14 penalties.

Zach Boychuk, the team’s leading scorer, recorded 5 points during the win streak. He added 2 assists on Monday night to bring his season point total to 22 (8g, 14a).

“He’s at his best when he is skating, when he’s physical and playing the body to create turnovers,” Daniels said. “He obviously has the talent to score goals, but what he’s doing away from the puck is getting a lot better.”

“He’s definitely been one of the more productive guys recently,” said Jason Karmanos, vice president and assistant general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes. “You can always see the flashes of skill and the bursts of speed that he can show, but when he’s really going, he has that consistently from shift to shift.”

Defensively, the play of Checkers’ captain Bryan Rodney has been noted. According to Karmanos, Rodney is still on the short list of potential call-ups. He hasn’t been to Raleigh yet simply because he plays on the left side, and the need has been for right-side defensemen.

“From day one, he’s come down with a good attitude, and he leads the team on the ice in the way he handles himself,” Daniels said. “He is a guy that we put in all situations. He plays a ton of big minutes, and he’s been a great leader for us.”

Jared Staal, brother of Hurricanes’ captain Eric Staal, was recently assigned to the Florida Everblades of the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL). In nine games for the Checkers, Staal went pointless and finished at -3.

However, Karmanos said he wouldn’t characterize the situation as a struggle for Staal. Rather, because of the number of forwards in the system already, Staal got caught in a numbers game, much like the situation Patrick O’Sullivan found himself in with the Canes.

“What’s most important for Jared is that he plays. He needs to develop and play a lot of minutes,” Karmanos said. “He needs to continue to work hard and keep himself in the best shape possible. The best way to do that is to be playing games.”

Player Spotlight – Mark Alt

Defenseman Mark Alt is currently starting as a true freshman for the University of Minnesota. Like Justin Faulk, Alt is already having an impact on an otherwise experienced defensive corps.

The 19-year old, U.S.-born defenseman was drafted 53rd overall (2nd round) by the Hurricanes in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. At a listed 6-foot-3, 199-pounds, Alt comes off as a stocky defender. But don’t let the size fool you.

“His athleticism is what jumps out at you right away,” Karmanos said. “He’s a big kid and he’s strong, but he skates very well.

“Sometimes when people hear defensive defenseman they think big and slow – that’s not Mark,” Karmanos added. “He’s already big, but certainly he doesn’t appear slow on the ice.”

Though Alt isn’t slow, he does benefit from his size, as he plays a physical game down low.

“He likes to get in and play an aggressive game,” Karmanos said. “That would indicate that he’s not afraid to go into the tough areas. He wants to engage physically and use his big frame to his advantage.”

Before attending Minnesota, Alt played high school hockey at Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul where he earned All-State honors in his last two seasons. He also played football for Cretin-Durham, quarterbacking his team to a championship in 2009. For that, he was named Minnesota’s Most Outstanding High School Football Player in 2009.

His 1,956-yard and 26-touchdown senior year performance earned him an offer from the University of Iowa to play football. Instead, he chose to pursue hockey, and in August, he participated in the U.S. National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Karmanos said that making the step from high school into Division I hockey is a big adjustment, but it is also one that Alt is making in stride.

“He’s getting a lot of playing time. These are the things you like to see – kids jumping right into a high level of play,” Karmanos said. “There’s going to be some ups and downs like there always are with young players, but he’s one in that group of young college defenseman that we think have bright futures.”

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