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In the System: Checkers Preparing for Playoffs

by Michael Smith / Carolina Hurricanes
With just over 20 games remaining on their schedule, the Charlotte Checkers are looking to fine-tune specific parts of their game as they make a final push toward the American Hockey League playoffs.

Michael Smith

Currently, the Checkers sit in third place in the East Division – above the cut-off line for the playoffs – with a 32-20-7 record (71 points). They trail the second-place Hershey Bears, a team Charlotte won’t see for the remainder of the regular season, by just three points.

The Checkers have earned points in eight of their last 10 games. Michael Murphy was in net for six of those, posting a 5-0-1 record in that span. He has won 15 of his last 18 starts, and posted his first career AHL shutout on Feb. 20 in a Checkers 5-0 win over Hershey.

Though not the most technically sound goaltender, Murphy is 17-9-3 this season with a 2.80 goals against average and a .911 save percentage.

“Not unlike a lot of young goalies, the flaws in his game need to be addressed and, technique-wise, he’s a work-in-progress,” said Jason Karmanos, the Hurricanes’ vice president and assistant general manager. “But at the end of the day, he’s still winning games, and that’s the most important thing for a goaltender.”

Slowing the Checkers down has been a rash of injuries. Currently they’re without four key players who are injured, in addition to losing Jerome Samson and Brett Carson to call-ups.

“We have a situation that a lot of AHL teams deal with given the way the schedule is constructed,” Karmanos said. “There are a lot of games packed closely together, which unfortunately leads to a lot of injuries.”

Among those injured include defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti, who could return in March following his December hip surgery. When he went down, Sanguinetti was playing his best hockey of the year.

“It would probably take him awhile to get back to where he was, but he certainly has the ability to help the team,” Karmanos said. “He’s making good progress, and it would be a nice boost to have him back.”

Other injured Checkers include forward Oskar Osala, a team leader in assists with 28, whose shoulder injury will sideline him until early March. Forward Nick Dodge has been out of the lineup for 10 days due to an infection from his minor finger surgery. Defenseman Casey Borer has also been out 10 days with an upper-body injury.

“The team has done pretty well, but in order to compete with some of the top-end teams in the division and league, we probably need some more depth, and we’ll see if we can address that,” Karmanos said.

Samson’s departure from Charlotte hasn’t helped the team, considering he was a scoring leader with 26 goals and 54 points. His offensive production has contributed to the Checkers netting an AHL-best 202 goals.

“He’s pretty much done everything he can do at the AHL level, and now he’s getting a chance to show what he can do at the NHL level,” Karmanos said. “In the short term here, he’s performed well. He’s made some adjustments and improvements that have allowed him to play his game.”

His offensive game is seemingly based on a simple yet effective strategy: shoot the puck. He leads the AHL with 245 shots on goal, over 30 more than the player trailing him. In five games and under 10 minutes in each with the Canes, Samson has taken 11 shots.

“He’s confident out there, and he knows this is an opportunity for him,” Karmanos said. “He’s a young guy that can have a bright future ahead of him, and he certainly has the work ethic to get the job done.”

With the team leader in points and other key forwards making regular trips to Raleigh, Chris Terry has stepped in to fill the offensive void. He has accumulated 46 points (23g, 23a) this season and is currently riding a four-game point streak (3g, 3a).

“As a second-year pro, it’s encouraging to see that he is accumulating points now,” Karmanos said. “Consistency in his game will come with conditioning and maturity over time.”

Ahead on the Checkers’ schedule is a three-day set of games beginning Thursday that features a pair of games in Charlotte on the 24th and 26th against the Connecticut Whale, with a match-up in Norfolk – the closest AHL team to Charlotte, nearly 330 driving miles away – sandwiched in between.

“It’s not ideal,” Karmanos said of the awkward scheduling. “But the team is very happy in Charlotte, and with all the other benefits we’ve seen this year in having them there, we know the travel situation just comes with the territory.”

Player Spotlight – Rasmus Rissanen

Rasmus Rissanen is a 19-year-old Finnish-born defenseman who is currently in his second season with the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League (WHL).  The Hurricanes drafted Rissanen in the sixth round (178th overall) of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.

With a 6-foot-2, 202-pound frame, Rissanen is regarded as a shutdown, stay-at-home defenseman who isn’t afraid to throw his body around.

“He’s a big, strong kid who plays with a lot of enthusiasm,” Karmanos said. “We like that edge he displays in his game, and maybe more importantly, he looks to be a very powerful skater.”

Rissanen skated with Team Finland in the World Junior Championships in Buffalo a few months ago. In six tournament games, he racked up 14 penalty minutes and was a plus one. Karmanos said the organization thought he played well.

Even though putting up offensive numbers on the back-end isn’t what Rissanen’s game is about, he has recorded 11 points this season for the Slivertips, his first and only goal coming on Feb. 5.

Gritty play down low is what makes Rissanen successful and has some in the organization seeing the defenseman as a younger Niclas Wallin.

“If he can develop into a player like that, we’d be extremely happy,” Karmanos said.

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