The Charlotte Checkers are back in the Calder Cup playoffs for the second consecutive year. This is a much different team from last year’s squad that fell in the first round to Chicago, with additional prospects joining the ranks, and the addition of Checkers head coach to the job duties of Hurricanes assistant GM Mike Vellucci has paid dividends. A seven-win improvement from last season and late-season momentum has the Checkers in a great position to make a stretch run, but their first challenge stands in their way: the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
Charlotte won three of four match-ups between the teams this season, outscoring the Penguins 12-9. Daniel Sprong will be a tough match-up for the Charlotte defense after his productive regular season with 32 goals, tied for second in the AHL and one behind league leader Valentin Zykov, and 33 assists. A key for the series is the play of Alex Nedeljkovic and whether he can stop a potent offensive attack. Charlotte’s top-rated offense will need to continue to be productive against a weak Penguins defensive corps.
In the four match-ups between the teams this season, Jeremy Smith and Nedeljkovic split time between the pipes. Smith won both of his match-ups and stopped a combined 50 of 53 shots. Nedeljkovic would play in back to back contests against the Penguins on March 13th and 14th and was lit-up for five goals in the first contest. In the second contest, Charlotte’s defense smothered the Penguins, allowing only 18 shots in route to the win.
Hurricanes fans will likely recognize a couple of familiar faces: forward Tom Kostopoulos, the Penguins captain, has announced his retirement following the season, and ageless Penguins backup goaltender Michael Leighton, on his third team of the season, will face the team he backstopped 23 times last season before an injury ended his year prematurely.
Here’s the schedule for the best-of-five series:
- Game 1: Friday 4/20, 7:00 p.m. at Charlotte
- Game 2: Saturday 4/21, 6:00 p.m. at Charlotte
- Game 3: Thursday 4/26, 7:00 p.m. at WBS
- Game 4: Saturday 4/28, 7:00 p.m. at WBS
- Game 5: Sunday 4/29, 3:00 p.m. at WBS
We will have coverage of both games in Charlotte tomorrow and Saturday night.
David Straub, WBS reporter for Pensburgh, has a bit of insight on the series and gave us the inside scoop:
WBS’s strength is in its fifth ranked offense. The danger man is rookie Daniel Sprong, who set a WBS franchise record with 32 goals in his rookie season. Other forwards to watch out for are team MVP Jean-Sebastien Dea, penalty killer extraordinaire Teddy Blueger, and Olympic bronze medalist Christian Thomas (who never seems to run out of energy).
WBS’s goaltending this season has been a revolving door of 7 different players. We go into the playoffs with last year’s co-Hap Holmes winner Tristan Jarry and the AHL all-time shutout leader Michael Leighton, but due to the constant shuttling between WBS and Pittsburgh as well as long spells of backup duty, Jarry ended the year with only 16 games played and a GAA over 3 for WBS. Jarry must return to his top form if WBS is to stand a chance. Also, the WBS PP was the worst it’s ever been this season, finishing second worst in the AHL by mere percentage points despite Sprong’s 11 power play goals.
Sprong, as noted above, is clearly the star rookie, but others to watch out for are Gage Quinney (14 goals, 19 assists) and Adam Johnson (11 goals, 20 assists, and extremely poised defense for a first-year AHL player). Thomas DiPauli is out week to week to start the series, so you might not see him, but if he comes back, he and Blueger have combined to form a very effective and dangerous PK forward pair. You will also catch a break with Zach Aston-Reese not here on account of Pittsburgh still being in the playoffs.
Projection for the series
I’ve been wrong three times in making predictions for WBS playoff series, so this year I’m not making any except that Tom Kostopoulos’s professional career will end when WBS’s season ends.
We might be in for a track meet.