Coming into March, it looked like the Charlotte Checkers might make a push for second place in the East Division, while holding on comfortably to third place. But after .500 play and a surge in the standings by the Norfolk Admirals, third place is up for grabs in the final weeks of the season.
|Michael Smith |
Charlotte has gone just 5-5 in what has been an unfavorable March schedule. Twice the team has played four games in five days, often involving a decent amount of travel. A streaking Norfolk team – 7-2-1 in their last 10 – has taken advantage of this, as they are now nipping at the Checkers’ heels.
“I’d like to see us consistently play our game,” head coach Jeff Daniels said. “We’ve had stretches where we’ve been good and other stretches where we’ve lacked some of the intensity needed around this time of year.”
In the AHL, the top four teams from each of the two divisions within the Eastern and Western Conferences make the playoffs, for a total of eight teams from each conference. If a fifth seed in either division has more points than the fourth-place team in the other, that fifth-place team would make the playoffs.
Currently, the Checkers (39-25-8, 86 points) are in third place in the division, but the Admirals trail by just two points and have four games in hand.
So, just like their parent club, the Checkers will be competing for a playoff spot during their last eight games of the season. Two of those match-ups will be against Norfolk, and Daniels is aware of how big these will be.
“Both teams know each other and we know what to expect,” Daniels said. “Usually they are some low-scoring, one-goal games that are physical. We’re two pretty equally-matched teams.”
Charlotte has gotten the best of Norfolk so far this season, going 6-2-2. The most recent meeting between the two teams ended in a 4-3 shootout loss for the Checkers, despite Justin Pogge’s season-high 50 saves.
One player the Checkers feared they might be without down the stretch was goaltender Mike Murphy, who left during the second period on Sunday in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Murphy and Pogge have split the load in goal this season, with Murphy playing in 39 games and Pogge playing 40.
“He kind of fell and hit his head on the ice,” Daniels said of Murphy’s injury. “He’s day-to-day right now. Hopefully shorter than longer.”
Charlotte briefly recalled Bobby Goepfert – not a Hurricanes’ prospect – from the Florida Everblades of the ECHL, but sent him back down on Wednesday, indicating that Murphy might be ready to play in the upcoming weekend set.
To increase their depth up front, Charlotte also recalled forward Cedric McNicoll, acquired by the Canes in March 2010 in the trade that sent Stephane Yelle and Harrison Reed to Colorado.
However, Daniels isn’t concerned about the Checkers’ depth on offense, even without top producers Jerome Samson and Drayson Bowman.
“When you lose Samson, a guy who has proven over the last few years that he’s a leading offensive player in this league, that’s a big hole for us,” Daniels said. “And Bowman was probably playing his best hockey of the year when he got called up.
“But going into the season, we thought we had plenty of depth up front, plenty of guys who could provide offense for us.”
With a stacked group of talented forwards, it might have been easy to overlook Chris Terry’s name at the beginning of the season. But after scoring goals in four of his last five games, he now leads the Checkers in points with 56 (29g, 27a).
“Chris Terry has now taken himself to the next level where he’s been one of our consistent goal scorers,” Daniels said.
Coming into Tuesday night’s game against the Adirondack Phantoms, the Checkers had lost two straight games. Thanks to an opportunistic power play and Zach Boychuk’s two goals, Charlotte broke that skid with a 5-2 win.
“We came out and played hard,” Daniels said. “We were disciplined and got the win that we needed.
“Our focus right now is to secure a playoff spot. To do that, we need to be consistent with our game for 60 minutes.”
Defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti made his return to the lineup on March 16 in Bridgeport. Acquired by the Hurricanes from the New York Rangers this off-season, the 23-year-old blue-liner missed 47 games because of surgery to repair a small tear in his hip labrum.
After playing through pain for about a month, Sanguinetti said he decided get it checked out.
“It was tough, the last couple of games,” he said. “Skating was a battle. I have less pain now, that’s for sure.”
Missing games still was a disappointing blow to Sanguinetti’s season, especially considering he was playing his best hockey of the year.
“You watch games and you want to be out there helping your team as much as possible,” he said. “And you always want to have a good year on the ice, so it was a tough decision, but it had to be done.”
“He brings a different element to our team,” Daniels said. “With the exception of Bryan Rodney, the other guys are more defensive-minded, and Bobby brings that offensive component to our lineup.”
With Charlotte particularly thin in depth on defense, especially after losing Brett Carson on waivers to Calgary, having Sanguinetti back is crucial. And it couldn’t come at a better time, as the Checkers make a final push toward the playoffs.
That said, the Charlotte coaching staff doesn’t want to rush him back into the lineup. Last week, during a stretch of four games in five days, Sanguinetti played in three of those games, getting a day of rest in between each.
“It’s not easy just jumping in, especially this time of year with the other players that have top-end speed and conditioning,” Daniels said. “We want to use him wisely and not kill him the first week back.”
“Your body can only heal so fast, so I just had to let that take its own path,” Sanguinetti said. “But when I could control things, I did everything I could to get back on the ice.”
Sanguinetti’s last game before his surgery was on November 16 vs. Adirondack, a 4-3 overtime win for the Checkers. The winning goal came off the stick of Sanguinetti, his second tally in as many games at the time.
“He has the vision, the patience with the puck, that offensive-side – and all that hasn’t left him over the past four months,” Daniels said. “It’s just something he has to put in game situations, and so far he’s handled that well.”
Four games into his return, Sanguinetti has already factored in on the scoresheet, notching an assist in Wilkes-Barre on Sunday. He is also seeing some time on the second power-play unit, according to Daniels.
“I feel pretty good. I’ve got a great range of motion coming off the surgery,” Sanguinetti said. “I feel great on the ice, and now it’s just a matter of getting my reads and timing right to get back to where I was before the injury.”