CHARLOTTE — Minor-league hockey is a different breed for anyone who’s been a regular at NHL games. There’s less creativity, in a way, although that sounds like a criticism and it truly isn’t. It’s much more a read-and-react game than the NHL, where things are coached to such a high level that individual plays can form, execute and be over with in a matter of seconds.
Nowhere was that more evident than the first ten minutes of the Charlotte Checkers’ 3-2 loss to the Chicago Wolves in Game 2 of their Central Division semifinal series Friday night. Chicago spent nearly the entire first half of the first period in the Checkers’ zone and outmuscled the home team off the puck with comparative ease.
So perhaps it isn’t surprising that in a lineup with seven players who spent time in the NHL this season, the Checkers were off their game in much the same way the Wolves were in Game 1 on Thursday. Chicago came out with a purpose, going up 1-0 less than five minutes into the game, and the Checkers barely knew what hit them.
Quite literally, in some cases.
“In the NHL there’s more control and more pace,” said Phil Di Giuseppe, who’s played enough games at both levels to understand the difference. “Here, it’s more stop and go. The ice doesn’t help when it’s a little bouncy. But when it comes to the playoffs, it’s all messed up out there, there are guys taking runs at guys. It’s not smooth, but it’s how the game goes.”
And when the Checkers did come back to tie the game (twice), it was first off the stick of a player, Andrew Miller, with fifteen NHL games to his credit, and then later in the period Dennis Robertson, who has spent three-plus seasons in the AHL but has yet to make his NHL debut. But make no mistake, these were high-quality shots, especially Robertson’s, which was almost a volley - a one-timer on a bounce that would have made any NHL winger proud.
“That was a heck of a pass from Danny [Kristo],” Robertson said. “It was about head height before it landed perfectly flat for me to tee it up. That was a pretty nice play.”
The Wolves, though, got the bounce they needed when Adam Musil scored the game-winner with 5:11 to go. Of the five players who lit the lamp, none played in the NHL this season, and that type of game seemed to favor Chicago, unlike Thursday’s more wide-open game that clearly suited Charlotte’s preferred style.
“I thought it was a pretty even game. I saw a desperate Checkers team,” said Checkers coach Ulf Samuelsson. “We had a couple of good looks at the end to put the game away, but we weren’t quick enough. They got an open opportunity to cash in. It could have gone either way.
“We were a little sloppy with our puck management. We didn’t put pucks in the right area to forecheck. [Chicago] has a good defense if we give them time.”
Samuelsson knows his team, and the Checkers have shown over the past month that they can skate with anyone in the league when they play their game. But to take two of three from the Wolves at Allstate Arena, which they will need to do to extend their season, they must try to impose an NHL-style game on an AHL playoff series.
Unless that happens, the Bojangles’ Coliseum ice will be quiet until October, with plenty of optimism for the future but a stinging reminder that winning in the minor leagues doesn’t always correlate to success in the NHL.