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Checkers Corner: The First True Test

For the first time this season, the Checkers falter but positives remain.

Jacob Kupferman/Charlotte Checkers

The Checkers faltered this past week, but fear not: as of Wednesday, they remain on top of the AHL standings. Charlotte faced a true test this weekend but the response this week will confirm if this team is a serious contender or became lucky with a hot start (I lean towards the former rather than the latter).

The Checkers finished the weekend dead-even with 12 goals for and 12 goals against. Their seven-goal explosion against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms was their highest-scoring game of the season. The loss against the Binghamton Devils snapped their five-game win streak but they’ll look to get a new one started on Wednesday.

Weekend Recap

Charlotte kicked off their weekend with a loss against the Albany Devils. After Charlotte took a 3-1 lead with a goal midway through the second period, the Devils scored three unanswered goals to secure a 4-3 win. Julien Gauthier added his fifth goal of the season and both Janne Kuokkanen and Saku Maenalanen had multi-point nights with a goal and an assist each. Martin Necas secured a secondary assist on Gauthier’s first period goal on the power play. Former Hurricanes goaltender Eddie Lack led the way for the Devils with 21 saves.

The Checkers offense exploded in their second game of the weekend, beating the Lehigh Valley Phantoms 7-4. Charlotte did not record a power play goal on five opportunities but received strong 5-on-5 offense up and down the line-up. Nicolas Roy found his scoring touch after being sent down, pocketing a pair of goals and an assist. Necas added a pair of secondary assists, albeit one of them coming on an empty net goal. Julien Guathier also had a pair of assists.

Charlotte dropped their Sunday finale 4-2 against Bridgeport. The Sound Tigers jumped out to an 2-0 lead in the first period but the Checkers responded and tied the game in the second. However, the Checkers let the game slip from their grasp in the third period when Bridgeport scored less than two minutes into the period and added an empty net goal late to secure the win. Callum Booth stopped just 17 of 20 shots and Martin Necas added an assist to his totals on Janne Kuokkanen’s second period goal.

Player of the Week

Saku Maenalanen has resoundingly responded to head coach Mike Vellucci’s challenges to work and play harder after being benched a few weeks ago. This became even more apparent with three points in three games this weekend. He now ranks fourth on the team in scoring with ten points in 13 games.

“I think he’s been great. He’s probably one of our hardest workers now...he’s played really well,” Vellucci said during the team’s recent home stand. Have to think the coach stands by the comments still.

Thought of the Week

Standards for this team should be high and it seems Vellucci has set the bar high. He won’t indicate if the team is a serious playoff contender this early in the season as he’s always had a one-day-at-a-time approach.

They remain a serious threat despite the losses this weekend and another streak should be expected soon. With that said, the team must find consistency in their power play. In one game they might score a few, as happened against the Devils, and then in the next it looks abysmal. Charlotte ranks second in the league at 23% so it may not look alarming at the moment. The personnel is there and the structure is there, unlike the Hurricanes power play. It just comes down to a matter of finishing. When they’re able to find even more consistency with the man-advantage, watch out.

Also, when will the Hurricanes finally call up Kuokkanen? There is no excuse in keeping some of their players in the lineup like Lucas Wallmark and Phil Di Giuseppe while Kuokkanen proves he’s an NHL talent. Seems to be only a matter of time but perhaps they will take a patient approach.

Looking Ahead

The Checkers play tonight against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms again and will then turn their attention to the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins in a back-to-back on Friday and Saturday. As of Wednesday, the Penguins ranked 13th in the league in points. Charlotte will return home to the Queen City next week for four consecutive home games.