The Charlotte Checkers opened their inaugural American Hockey League season on the wrong foot, winning just two of their first eight games. Recently, however, the team has shown little ill effects from the sluggish start.
|Michael Smith |
Before dropping a 5-2 decision to the defending Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears Tuesday night, the Checkers were riding a seven-game point streak, which included four wins.
One of those wins came on Sunday, as the Checkers defeated Hershey 4-2 in front of more than 5,500 at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte.
“That was a huge character win for us,” Jeff Daniels, head coach of the Checkers, said. “We hung on for a win. I think from a confidence standpoint, it was huge. We dug deep and found a way to beat a great team.”
That win capped off the 4-0-3 sequence which helped the Checkers climb back to an even 6-6-3 record. Tuesday’s loss dropped them to 6-7-3 overall.
“We’re going in the right direction,” said Daniels. “We’re learning to compete for the full 60 minutes, and we’ve done that recently for sure.”
“Looking back on it, there’s a sense that maybe the group wasn’t game-ready,” said Jason Karmanos, vice president and assistant general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes. “The team has started to play better as a group and playing better in all three zones, and when that happens, the results start to come.”
Among those results is more offensive production, something Daniels said was lacking earlier in the season. One player contributing in that regard is forward Chris Terry, who has a six-game point streak. Since Nov. 2, he has recorded 5 goals and 3 assists.
“I think Terry has been the best, most consistent player up front,” Karmanos said. “I know the coaches have been very happy with his game. He’s a guy who has always had the offensive ability, but we’re seeing the complete game from him now.”
Jerome Samson is coming off a 78-point (37g, 41a) season in Albany and continues to deliver offensively this season in Charlotte. Through 16 games, Samson leads the team in goals with 9.
On the defensive end, Brett Bellemore, though quiet on the stat sheet, has been a reliable player.
“Bellemore has been a lock back there playing against top lines,” Daniels said.
“He’s always positioned himself well, and he knows the defensive game very well,” added Karmanos. “What has changed this year is the increased strength and the better mobility, and that’s helped him to compete night in and night out against top lines.”
Mike Murphy has played well in net for the Checkers, posting a 2.22 GAA and a .925 save percentage through nine games. In Charlotte’s 4-2 victory over Hershey on Sunday, he made 42 saves.
“Murphy has made some real nice strides from last year to this year in terms of his approach. He’s working very hard both on practice days and game days,” Karmanos said. “He’s preparing himself and learning how to be a pro.”
Drayson Bowman and Zac Dalpe, who started the season with the Hurricanes, were assigned to Charlotte on Oct. 31 in order to get them more playing time, and both have responded well.
“They’ve come down with a lot of confidence from playing at a higher level, and you can tell that from the pace they play at,” Daniels said.
Dalpe, who’s playing at his natural center position in Charlotte, has notched 3 goals and 3 assists through six games.
“He has a lot of speed coming through the neutral zone and an NHL-caliber shot,” Daniels said.
“Dalpe’s game has really come together down there,” Karmanos said. “He’s using his speed and and his shot to be a threat offensively each night.”
Bowman also has 6 points (1g, 5a) through six games, but Karmanos said he’s had chances to score more.
“It’s good that he’s been getting the chances, and now he has to start burying them,” Karmanos said. “He has the ability to score goals – he’s shown that in the past – and he’ll get back to that.”
Given these performances, the Canes know they have plenty of young depth that can step up when called upon. Brett Carson did this last week, as he filled in for Joni Pitkanen.
“Carson came in and played solidly, and that’s what we needed him to do,” Karmanos said. “There’s a whole group of guys – both up front and on D – that we feel confident that can come in when we need them and help the team win.”
As long as the Canes stay healthy, though, the lineup in Charlotte should stay relatively the same, giving the Checkers more time to gain the chemistry and confidence they will need moving forward.
“We’re getting better every day,” Daniels said. “The guys that have been here awhile know they need to keep pushing themselves to put this team where it needs to be in the standings and to put themselves in a position that, when Carolina needs somebody, their game will be where it needs to be.”
Player Spotlight – Justin Faulk
Defenseman Justin Faulk is currently starting as a true freshman at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Through 10 games this season, the 18-year-old Faulk has 7 points (2g, 5a).
“Justin has a lot of offense to his game, and he’s off to a great start,” Karmanos said. “He’s playing a solid role for a top-end team in the NCAA, and we’re excited about where he is right now.”
An offensive-minded, U.S.-born defenseman, Faulk was drafted 37th overall (2nd round) by the Hurricanes in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.
“He is able to get back to the puck quickly with good skating, and he has the ability to move the puck hard and accurately to the right guy,” Karmanos said. “Those are the things he does well, and those are the keys to being a good puck-moving defenseman.”
Before committing to UMD, Faulk played for the U.S. National Development team. Karmanos has hopes that Faulk will make the 2011 U.S. Junior National team, based on the strong showing he had at the evaluation camp in August. Faulk was the top-scoring defenseman with 5 points (2g, 3a) in seven games, a distinction he also holds for Bulldogs so far this season.
“You want your top prospects to be impact guys,” Karmanos said. “Right now, as a true freshman, he’s doing that.”