It was supposed to just be American Hockey League game No. 505 and the 36th regular season game for the Charlotte Checkers, but it ended up being so much more.
News broke early Sunday morning that the NHL and NHLPA had reached a tentative collective bargaining agreement that would end the 113-day work stoppage. That raised the stakes for today’s game, as the microscope of evaluation became more focused than perhaps it has been all season.
“The guys wanted to come in and make a good impression,” said head coach Jeff Daniels. “They showed a lot of excitement and passion early.”
At least from a Hurricanes perspective, the result of the game may have been less important than the brief opportunity to assess the performance of top prospects. But for the Checkers, today’s game meant another two points in the standings, as they topped their old East Division rival Norfolk Admirals 3-1.
“We just kind of put that in the background,” said forward Jeremy Welsh. “No one really knows what’s going to happen in the next week.”
Uncertainty aside, PNC Arena was buzzing, as a capacity crowd of 10,256 welcomed the happy coincidence of favorable labor news and the first AHL game in Raleigh.
“People in Carolina have always been great. I know the guys were excited in the locker room,” Daniels said. “The fans really got into it. It’s a credit to the people of North Carolina. They love the game, and they showed it today.”
“It was good news going into the game here, and I think it helped the crowd, too,” said defenseman Justin Faulk.
Hurricanes brass – including Jim Rutherford, Kirk Muller, Ron Francis, Jason Karmanos, John MacLean, Rod Brind’Amour and Dave Lewis, among others – watched the game from a suite. While this would have been the case regardless of the labor situation, the game ultimately morphed into a 60-minute training camp for many players.
“Guys emotions are running wild. It’s almost like that first day of training camp,” said goaltender Dan Ellis. “Hard work and effort, you want to encourage that.”
“This is where the guys want to be,” Daniels said. “But we didn’t want to get too fancy and try to put on a show.”
Even still, a number of players were quite noticeable today, as the energy level ramped up. Zach Boychuk, though he didn’t factor in on the scoresheet, had a number of prime scoring opportunities. Zac Dalpe scored a shorthanded goal and recorded an assist on the third goal of the game, a beautiful pass from behind the net to set up Jerome Samson in the slot. Faulk picked up from where he left off at PNC Arena in April, looking right at home. Ellis made 28 saves, earning third star honors.
Brett Sutter, who could possibly contend for a depth forward position with the Canes, made an early exit, as he was whistled for a major boarding penalty and a game misconduct at 9:48 of the first period.
“He’s been a leader day in and day out. I guess it was the right call,” Daniels said. “But it was unfortunate because he’s been playing so well.”
The aforementioned players could find themselves back in Raleigh in a few days when a smaller (around 25 players) and shorter (a week) shotgun training camp kicks off. Thought details remain to be seen, Daniels knows he will be without at least one player.
“I would assume Justin [Faulk], for sure,” he said. “He’s an impact player. You can see a big difference between him and other players, and you forget how young he is.”
For some of the Checkers, the fact that they’ve been playing regularly might give them an early conditioning advantage on those who haven’t played organized hockey during the prolonged work stoppage.
“You’re out there practicing with the guys, and you’re skating and pushing yourself hard, but [it’s different when] you get until the game situation – the stops, the starts, battling through checks, having guys pressure you,” Daniels said.
“I’m ready for hockey up here,” Faulk said with a grin on his face.
And he speaks for many.