That hit-or-miss attack was most evident during the team’s three-in-three road trip to close out the month of February. The Checkers went 1-2-0 during the set but were shut out twice, totaling just two goals over the weekend. That only added to a mounting feeling of frustration as they struggled to keep their high-scoring pace from earlier this season.
“We had been snake bit for a while there,” said head coach Mike Vellucci. “We were maybe gripping our sticks a little too tight.”
With a quick week of practice in the meantime, the Checkers returned to the road this past weekend for another three-in-three series and, despite a slow start with Friday’s 6-3 loss to Providence, were able to scrap together some offensive production.
“We competed hard this weekend,” said Vellucci. “Even in Providence we competed hard for the first two periods and then we crumbled a bit in the third. We had lots of chances to score and we didn’t. But the next two games we grinded it out and got some goals. That was the key.”
After falling behind by two goals on Sunday in Hartford, the Checkers exploded for a four-goal second period, including three tallies over the span of three minutes, which proved to be the deciding factor in the visitors’ big win.
That phenomenon of scoring in bursts has quietly been a key characteristic of the Checkers this season.
“Even early on when we were winning all those games, it was like we’d score three or four in like five minutes,” said Vellucci. “It comes from being young and emotional.”
That has given the coaching staff a whole new challenge of managing a team that draws so much from the ups and downs of the game.
“It’s a young, inexperienced, emotional team,” said Vellucci. “It’s my job to keep the highs and lows at an even keel. That’s been the most difficult part for us this year, we get down too much when we lose and we get too high when we win.”
That’s not to say it’s a solely negative aspect of the team. The notion that they are capable of scoring at any point is a motivator on the bench. The key, still, is sparking those scoring rolls.
“When we lost that game [last weekend] 1-0, we out-chanced them 22-10,” said Vellucci. “I was telling the guys, let’s just get the first one. So there’s things we can use it for. As long as we’re getting our chances, we’re going to score goals.”
This past weekend’s wins were not only a boost to the Charlotte offense as a whole, but to several individual players who were mired in scoring droughts of their own. The AHL’s leading goal scorer Valentin Zykov found the back of the net three times over the last two games after going goalless in seven straight games, while Aleksi Saarela and Warren Foegele both lit the lamp to snap five and seven game goalless streaks, respectively.
It seems pretty simple, but having goal scorers scoring goals is a sure-fire way to get the Checkers back on the right track offensively.
“It was great,” said Vellucci. “Before that game I was going through and we had a lot of guys who hadn’t scored in a long time. Not just those top guys but everybody, we had guys going 10 games or more without a goal. That stuff starts to creep in the back of their mind.”
The good news for Charlotte is that they have been a vastly better team on home ice this season, which lends itself positively for the club’s upcoming six-game home stand. Even so, the solid weekend helped cap off what could have been a troubling road trip.
“I thought it was a good weekend,” said Vellucci. “These last six games on the road we went 3-3-0. It didn’t start off great but taking two of three this weekend was big for us.”
SILENT DEADLINEThe AHL’s trade deadline came and went on Monday and, despite showing strong interest in making moves last week, the Checkers stood pat.
“We tried to improve our team if we could without sacrificing any of our young guys,” said Vellucci. “That was the key.”
The coach pointed out that acquiring players would have come at the cost of ice time for his contingent of young skaters, who are turning in strong seasons as a whole.
“Our young guys are having career years for first-year players in the American League,” said Vellucci. “Foeg, Bish, Roy and those guys, they’re improving. There was no real need to add just to add.”
In the end, it seems the market just wasn’t there for what Charlotte was looking for.
“If I found someone that was significantly better than someone else, I probably would have added them,” said Vellucci.
MCKEGG FITS INWhile the AHL deadline proved fruitless for Charlotte, Carolina’s lone move at the NHL deadline has given the Checkers an immediate boost.
Greg McKegg, acquired from the Pittsburgh organization in exchange for Josh Jooris, notched a helper in each of his first three games in a Charlotte sweater, including setting up Saturday’s overtime winner for Zykov.
In his first season with the Penguins, McKegg had recorded 12 points (5g, 7a) in 28 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, including just one point in his final seven games with the team, before being dealt to the Checkers. Now in a new system with new pieces around him, McKegg has a fresh start.
“I just had a conversation with him at practice, he felt like he was getting more comfortable as the weekend went on,” said Vellucci. “He likes our structure and our game and felt that it’s going to help his game.”
McKegg has proven to be a solid fit early with the Checkers, helping out the team’s slightly depleted roster down the middle, especially with the recent loss of Marcus Kruger over the weekend. The veteran forward missed all three contests due to injury and was seeing the doctor today, so his status going forward is still unknown, but Vellucci indicated that Kruger was “feeling a lot better.”
In the meantime, the impressive McKegg will continue to be leaned on to help the Checkers make their final push to the postseason.
“His speed is really good,” said Vellucci of McKegg. “He’s a very powerful skater. He’s smart and he can contribute offensively. I’m very happy with him.”