The Charlotte Checkers have not lacked intrigue, change and unpredictability this season, and their blue line typifies that as they pursue a place in the Calder Cup playoffs.
With nine games to play in the American Hockey League's regular season, the Charlotte defense corps is a far cry from what new coach Mark Morris and Carolina Hurricanes management anticipated six months ago.
Injuries to Danny Biega (concussion) and Rasmus Rissanen (upper body) have them out of the lineup, but it has been adjustments to the NHL roster that have decimated those preseason blue-line plans for the Checkers. Brett Pesce played three games for Charlotte before heading to Carolina, where he has remained. Ryan Murphy and Jaccob Slavin have advanced from prospects to regulars for the Hurricanes. Michal Jordan has largely avoided the Raleigh-Charlotte shuttle.
"Depth has been an issue for us," Morris said. "It's the nature of the American Hockey League, trying to find ways to win even without some of your better players.
"All of those guys were in our plans to begin the [season], but as changes were made up top, those guys took on more responsibility, and it's great to see those guys have that opportunity."
In their first season in Charlotte, the Checkers reached the Eastern Conference Final against the eventual Calder Cup champion Binghamton Senators in 2011. Since then, they have missed out on playoff hockey in three of the past four seasons. Last summer Carolina management brought in Morris, a long-time AHL coach in the Los Angeles Kings organization, to replace Jeff Daniels in Charlotte.
Morris has walked into a first season of upheaval. Midway through the season, Charlotte put together a franchise-record 12-game point streak. The Checkers then followed it with three wins in 19 games (3-12-3-1) that led to a massive roster shakeup prior to the NHL Trade Deadline as well as the AHL's trade deadline a week later.
Looking to salvage their season, Charlotte moved out seven players, including longtime Checker Zach Boychuk, veteran T.J. Hensick and goaltender Drew MacIntyre. Forwards Blair Jones, Andrew Miller and the still-injured Valentin Zykov joined the Checkers with goaltender John Muse and defenseman Dennis Robertson.
"Jones has been a great addition, and I think Miller [brings] that clever playmaking ability," Morris said.
Since those changes, the Checkers have gone 7-2-0-1 heading into a game Monday against Manitoba that finishes a seven-game road trip which has seen them go 3-2-0-1 so far. They will start a six-game homestand Friday.
"You're always thinking on your feet," Morris said with a laugh about trying to reshape a third of his team in the final six weeks of the season. "Sometimes it's guesswork. Other times it's just a feel you get, trying to blend them in.
"Veterans have laid it all on the line for you, and then all of a sudden a new face comes through the door, and maybe [the new player] is eating up a little bit of ice. That gets a little dicey sometimes. It's a balancing act, for sure."
Through it all, the Checkers have managed to put themselves in contention for a playoff berth with three weeks to go in the regular season.
"We really try to preach a team game," Morris said. "There is an interdependence there that everybody has to rely on. Some days you're going to get the lion's share of ice time or the opportunities. When you don't, you've got to be a great teammate, and I think that has been a message that has come through right from the start. You can't do this alone, and everybody has to pitch in.
"When things are going [well] for you, stay humble, and if they're not, be a great teammate."
The fight between the Hartford Wolf Pack and the Portland Pirates for the North Division crossover spot has added company.
A five-game winning streak for the Syracuse Crunch has pushed them to within two points of third place in the North Division and four points of Portland. The Pirates own the crossover spot and have two games in hand. However, Syracuse faces two three-in-three weekends in the final three weeks of the season. This weekend starts with a visit from the AHL-leading Toronto Marlies on Friday.
The Wolf Pack's six-game winning streak earlier this month steered them into the thick of contention after the Pirates stumbled, winning once in 10 games after returning home from a seven-game road trip last month. But the Pirates have rallied lately, winning four consecutive games and assembling a six-game point streak (4-0-2-0).
The Pirates visit the Wolf Pack on Saturday before finishing their season series April 10 at Portland. The Wolf Pack have a season-ending six-game road trip. As a New York Rangers affiliate, Hartford has missed the postseason three times since 1998.
In the Central Division, three points separate the first-place Milwaukee Admirals from the fourth-place Lake Erie Monsters.
The Pacific Division features a fight for fourth place between the Bakersfield Condors and the San Jose Barracuda as they try to fend off Charlotte's crossover threat.
However, other teams have started to fade from contention. The Rochester Americans have two wins in their past seven games and sit eight points below the North Division playoff line. They face a two-game series at home with the powerful Grand Rapids Griffins this weekend. Of Rochester's final 10 games, all but one are against teams in playoff contention.
Syracuse's recent run also came at the expense of the St. John's IceCaps, who have won twice in their past seven games. Among the defeats was a 6-5 loss at Rochester on March 23; Rochester overcame St. John's 5-1 third-period lead, scoring five times in the final 11:02, including the game-winning goal with four seconds remaining. The IceCaps end their road schedule Tuesday at Toronto before finishing the season with a six-game homestand. However, they are six points out of a playoff berth.
Elsewhere, the 29th-place Manitoba Moose dealt the Stockton Heat a massive setback, sweeping a two-game series. The Heat managed to split a road series with the Pacific Division-leading Ontario Reign last weekend, but remain stuck in sixth place in the division. They play six of their final nine games at home, where they are 19-8-1-0.
AHL GAME OF THE WEEK
Since starting the season with four wins in their first 18 games, the Providence Bruins have pushed their way up the Atlantic Division standings. Thanks to wins in eight of their past 11 games, the Bruins have moved to within five points of the first-place Hershey Bears with nine games remaining for each team. They start a two-game series at Providence Saturday. They split a two-game series at Hershey last month. It will be the first game at Dunkin' Donuts Center for the Bruins after a seven-game road trip that has seen them go 5-1-0-0 so far. Providence is 23-5-4-2 since Jan. 1. Providence rookie Frank Vatrano is on recall with the Boston Bruins, but forward Seth Griffith, who is tied for second in league scoring at 67 points, returned from an injury last week and had two goals and two assists in three games.
The AHL named San Antonio Rampage goaltender Spencer Martin its CCM/AHL Player of the Week for the period ending Sunday. Martin, 20, has split his rookie pro season between San Antonio and the ECHL after Colorado selected him in the third round (No. 63) of the 2013 NHL Draft. He went 3-0-0 with a 0.99 goals-against average and a .968 save percentage. With Calvin Pickard in Colorado, Martin has taken over from injured veteran Reto Berra and Roman Will.
Hershey forward Chris Bourque still holds the AHL lead with 72 points (28 goals, 44 assists). … Vatrano continues to retain the AHL lead in goals with 33 in 33 games. … Mikko Rantanen's 53 points (22 goals, 31 assists) in 45 games for San Antonio lead all rookie scorers. … Ontario goaltender Peter Budaj's 1.73 goals-against average and 37 wins lead all AHL goaltenders. His eight shutouts and 3,185 minutes also lead the AHL.
AROUND THE AHL
Ontario became the second team to clinch a playoff berth. The AHL affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings has qualified for postseason play in 13 of the past 14 seasons. Ontario is the defending champion, winning the 2015 Calder Cup as the Manchester Monarchs before an offseason move to Southern California. … The Marlies are one point shy of reaching the 100-point mark for the second time in their history. They are on pace for a franchise-record 112 points, the most in the AHL in a season since the 2011-12 Norfolk Admirals. That season the Admirals won a league-record 28 consecutive games en route to the Calder Cup championship as an affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning. … The Albany Devils' magic number is one. If they clinch a berth, it will be the third time a New Jersey Devils AHL affiliate has reached the playoffs since 2000. … Other teams with single-digit magic numbers are Milwaukee (five), Hershey (seven), Grand Rapids (eight), Lake Erie (eight) and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (nine). … Three teams have been eliminated from playoff contention: Manitoba, the Iowa Wild and the Springfield Falcons. Iowa has missed the playoffs for three straight seasons; before that, the Minnesota Wild affiliate made the playoffs in 10 of 12 seasons. With Springfield out, Arizona Coyotes affiliates have not qualified for the playoffs in nine of the past 12 seasons. … Portland goaltender Mike McKenna has set a new franchise record with 80 wins for the Pirates. … Three more AHL players made their NHL debut last week, bringing the season total to 126 players.