With the Charlotte Checkers beginning their playoff run tomorrow night against the Chicago Wolves (St. Louis Blues affiliate), it’s time to take a deeper look into what you might expect from the opponent and the series. The Checkers may have earned the fourth seed in the Central Division by the skin of their teeth, but they’re in just the same. The remaining teams all feature 0-0 records and regardless of seeding, the story is yet to be written.
On paper, Chicago has certainly had the upper hand against the Checkers. These two teams met eight times in the regular season, with Charlotte posting a 2-1-5 record against the Wolves. Chicago has enjoyed having two of the top four AHL scorers on their regular roster in league MVP Kenny Agostino (83 pts, 1st) and Wade Megan (66 pts, 4th), with each having played at least 65 games for the Wolves. Impressively, Agostino was 15 points clear of Chris Terry (remember him?) in AHL scoring, while Terry’s second place and Megan’s fourth place were separated by just two points.
The Checkers lack the type of League-leading producers boasted by the Wolves, but are not without some familiar talent of their own. Rookies Andrew Poturalski and Lucas Wallmark lead Charlotte with 52 and 46 points in 74 and 67 games, respectively, while Andrew Miller and Phil Di Giuseppe have also contributed at north of a 0.70 points-per-game clip. Then, of course, Aleksi Saarela — who is considered day-to-day as he continues to recover from an injury — set the League on fire in his North American debut, scoring six goals and four assists in just nine games during the Checkers’ playoff push. They are also going to start the playoffs with Janne Kuokkanen, the Canes’ second-round pick from 2016 whose London Knights were eliminated from the OHL playoffs in overtime of Game 7 yesterday. Kuokkanen was assigned by the Hurricanes to the Checkers this afternoon.
Chicago does have an edge in both facets of special teams play, owning a 20.3% conversion rate on PP and 82.6% penalty kill rate to Charlotte’s division-worst 13.1% PP and 80.7% PK. With scorers like Agostino, Megan, and winger Andrew Agozzino (54 pts, 3rd in team scoring), the Wolves’ significant offensive threat becomes even more potent with the man-advantage.
But give Charlotte the edge in goal thanks to the heroics of late addition Tom McCollum, who went an impressive 11-2-3 with a .926% save percentage and a 2.10 GAA as the Checkers chased down the final playoff spot in their division. McCollum, a member of the Calgary Flames organization who the Checkers picked up on loan from the Stockton Heat in March, has been a revelation, steadying Charlotte’s crease after Michael Leighton was lost for two months with a lower-body injury. Leighton could return to the Checkers in the next couple of weeks, but the starting job is unquestionably McCollum’s to run with.
On the other side of the ice, the Wolves rotated back and forth between a pair of netminders when facing the Checkers. Ville Husso posted respectable numbers of his own with a .920 save percentage and a 2.37 GAA as he went 13-6-2 on the year. Against the Checkers he was unbeaten, 4-0-0 with a .937 save percentage and a 1.68 GAA. Jordan Binnington, the winning goaltender in Chicago’s overtime win on Sunday that put the Checkers into the playoffs, was 2-0-1 against Charlotte this season, posting a .924 save percentage and a GAA of 2.25. His overall numbers didn’t quite match Husso, though, with a 16-7-8-3 record, a .911 save percentage and a 2.71 GAA.
The Wolves also come into North Carolina with a bit of a personal connection via three ex-Hurricanes—forwards Brad Malone and Ty Rattie and defenseman James Wisniewski, who joined the team late in the season after playing overseas. Chicago also features the versatile Vince Dunn, a rookie defenseman who finished ninth in AHL scoring among blueliners with 45 points. The Checkers counter on defense with Jake Chelios (32 pts, 5th in team scoring) and Haydn Fleury, who put up 26 points in his rookie season.
Over the course of the season, each team dealt with the annual AHL adjustment of losing top players to the NHL for periods of time—sometimes even permanently. For the Checkers, that meant having just nine games with former captain Derek Ryan before he and Brock McGinn moved up to full time duty in Raleigh early in the year. In Chicago, forward Ivan Barbashev and defenseman Brad Hunt made the jump as the team began to find their identity midway through the year. Barbashev now sees time on St. Louis’ top line in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
To their credit, each team responded with fixes and add-ons being patched on along the way as they ended strong; in March and April, Chicago went 11-6-2 while the Checkers finished 14-4-4.
The two teams also feature the two longest consecutive winning streaks in their division, with Chicago rattling off eight in a row back in late December-early January and Charlotte putting up seven straight through the month of March. The Checkers’ rebound from a rough first half of the year was documented in yesterday’s “Year in Review,” but surprisingly enough, the Wolves dealt with similar adversity at the outset of the season.
With just four goals posted in their first three games and zero wins to show for it, the Wolves were in trouble right off the bat. They responded by going 4-0-1 in their next five games as they found their scoring touch, and managed to push aside their awful start as they steadily rose to the top of the division, eventually earning the crown over the Grand Rapids Griffins by one point. Chicago’s dominance took a while to manifest, but it seems to have hit at the right time for the Wolves.
As the best-of-5 series begins, look for Charlotte to be jumping early. Their record-setting 27-10-1 mark at Bojangles’ Coliseum will have them feeling confident in hopes of heading into Chicago with a split-series or better. Two wins on home ice would see them needing just one on the road to move on, despite Chicago’s confidence in being able to win in Charlotte early in the series.
Your chance to see Charlotte in the first round will be during games one and two of the series, Thursday and Friday night at 7 and 7:15 p.m. at Bojangles Coliseum. We’ll be bringing you live coverage from both matchups.