With the Hurricanes snatching up Warren Foegele, Valentin Zykov and Lucas Wallmark to full-time NHL duty, the Charlotte Checkers needed someone to step up for the 2018-19 campaign. With star 2nd overall pick Andrei Svechnikov likely to never see an AHL surface, the team needed to look within to find the necessary offense to replace the trio’s production.
Insert: Nicolas Roy and Andrew Poturalski.
Roy, the second-year forward, is off to a hot start with four goals and two assists, leading the Checkers in points. While Roy did not have any points over the weekend, Poturalski added a pair of assists over a span of two games, helping continue the Checkers hot start from opening weekend. The team dispatched of the Utica Comets and Syracuse Crunch in short order this weekend, extending their winning streak to four games.
Poturalski’s hot-start numbers are of no surprise to Checkers head coach Mike Vellucci. “He does all the right things. His competitiveness got way better than it started last year...if he can bring it up another step, that’s going to make him have an even better year for us this year,” said Vellucci during camp. “Potsy”, as Vellucci refers to him as, serves as the Energizer bunny of the team. Standing at 5’10”, he’s by far not the tallest member of the Checkers but serves as a strong leader on the team with his quickness and willingness to drive the net.
Charlotte started the weekend with a 4-3 victory over the Comets in dramatic fashion. The Checkers had sustained offensive pressure within the Comets zone before veteran defenseman Dennis Robertson released a shot through traffic to give the Checkers the lead with 1:25 left to go in the game.
The game started with back-to-back goals from Reid Boucher and recently recalled Adam Gaudette to put the Checkers in a 2-0 hole. Charlotte came storming back with three straight goals, started off by Saku Maenalanen’s first goal. Maenalanen intercepted a pass in the Checkers defense zone and then finished off a give-and-go to put the Checkers on the board. His goal was exactly the points of emphasis head coach Mike Vellucci was trying to instill during training camp: quick transition speed and finishing off odd-man rushes.
Maenalenen hasn’t lit up the score sheet but is adjusting well to the North American game. He played his best game yet against the Comets and hopefully builds on it as a reliable middle-six forward.
The Checkers won their second game 4-1 over the Crunch with a strong performance from goalie Alex Nedeljkovic, stopping 34 out of 35 shots in route to his fourth win of the season. Charlotte scored four goals before the Comets answered a few minutes into the third period to end Nedeljkovic’s shutout bid. Julien Gauthier added his first goal of the season in the Checkers win, finishing off a feed from Maenalanen in the first period. Clark Bishop, who had a strong camp in both Raleigh and Charlotte, and Patrick Brown both registered their first goals in the win.
Thought of the Week
A commenter from last week’s column requested a closer look at Checkers forward Janne Kuokkanen. The 20-year-old Finnish forward is off to a solid start with five points (three goals, two assists) in his first four games. Kuokkanen had just one goal over the weekend on the power play.
The term hockey sense or hockey IQ can often be overused but on this play it is apparent. Kuokkanen began the sequence by establishing himself at the point, trading passes with Trevor Carrick. He cheats over to the circle and makes sure to establish himself. The play breaks down after an errant puck but Kuokkanen stays in position and doesn’t panic or become over-eager to shoot. It ends up in the back of the net after a quick shot.
He continues to be one of the smarter players on the ice for the Checkers and just happens to be in the right place at the right time. Paired with a quick release on his wrist shot, the combo makes him a lethal player every time he comes over the board. Based on his strong Canes Camp performance and his current Checkers production, Kuokkanen should be an attractive option for the Hurricanes if they’re in need of a mid-season call-up.
Player of the Week
Alex Nedeljkovic played very well in back to back games, stopping all but four shots. Nedeljkovic made timely saves against Utica despite allowing three goals. He faced a tougher challenge against Syracuse and a higher volume of shots but stood tall. He now has a 2.01 goals against average and a .933 save percentage so far. He’s improved his position within the crease, with quicker lateral movements from each side of the crease and the stats are beginning to back that up.
Charlotte finally returns home for what will be their only home series in the month of October. The Checkers will take on the Hershey Bears (Capitals affiliate), who are winless through their first five games and it may extend to six with Wednesday’s match-up against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Superstar goalie prospect Ilya Samsonov has had a hard time adjusting to the North American game so far, struggling over the three games he’s played while posting a .859 save percentage and a 4.03 goals against average. Those numbers will level out but its been a rough start for the future Caps starter in net and for the rest of the Bears.
The organization told me they will be inviting Duke Energy utility workers to a game this season to thank them for their hurricane relief efforts during Tropical Storm Michael and Hurricane Florence. The game so far is undetermined but the Checkers confirmed it will not be this weekend’s opening series against Hershey.