Given the dramatics it took for the Checkers to make it into the postseason, it’s almost fitting that their exit came in a similar fashion.
After trading wins with the Central Division champion Chicago Wolves, the Checkers’ first round series came to a head with a decisive Game 5 in Chicago that saw the home team squeak out a win to advance.
“It was two good teams that were evenly matched and it went back and forth,” said head coach Ulf Samuelsson of the series. “The margins for error were small and they came out on top. It’s hard to put the finger on any certain areas. They got a couple power-play goals and we didn’t. But again, it was really tight.”
“We’re happy with the way we played,” said Checkers captain Patrick Brown. “We’re able to look ourselves in the mirror and know we gave everything we had. But obviously we would have liked it to end differently.”
The way it ended aside, experiencing everything that the playoffs bring is a positive for any developing prospect.
“We had a lot of young players, a lot of players in the playoffs for the first time, so they got a taste of the playoffs,” said Samuelsson. “How much fun it is and the intensity of it and the focus of how the hockey world looks at performances at a different level. That’s for sure.”
Above all, there seemed to be one aspect of playoff hockey that stuck out more than anything else.
“I felt like it’s much different from the regular season,” said Aleksi Saarela. “After every whistle there’s some fighting and slashing.”
With Kyle Hagel on the sideline, the Checkers didn’t really carry any specific toughness in their lineup night in and night out. But that didn’t stop players for standing up to the physically imposing Wolves.
“I think it was Game 2, Chicago won that game but [Brendan Woods] really brought the pushback,” said Hagel. “It seemed to me like there was a clear message from their coach after the 4-0 loss that they had to come out and be chippier. They were starting scrums after every whistle, they were shooting the puck after the whistle so Woodsy had that one where he was offsides by like seven feet and still blasted a slap shot and started a scrum. I love that. That’s what real playoff hockey is. And then even like Roland [McKeown] the other night on the road gets smashed into the turnbuckle and has his gloves off before he’s back on his feet. It’s awesome.”
In the end, that taste of the postseason, however short, was enough to give the team the drive to return next year.
“That was some of the most fun I’ve had playing hockey in the last couple of years,” said Brown. “There’s nothing like playoff hockey, at any level. Every single player on the ice is giving all they’ve got and the whole intensity and the extra stuff after the whistle, it makes it a blast.”
“It’s great for everything, for us, for the fans and for the community,” said Brendan Woods. “It was a good way to learn what it takes to win and it’s a good step in the right direction.”
While the Checkers’ season didn’t end the way the team would have liked, their journey over the last few months to get to that spot was an admirable one.
“From where we were in January to where we were in Game 5 is a testament to how much the boys in that locker room believed in what we could do,” said Patrick Dwyer.
It’s no secret that the first half of the season was one to forget for the Checkers, who were buried in last place in the Western Conference on January 10.
“When you find yourselves in last place in January, it’s easy to roll over,” said Jake Chelios. “But no one did that.”
At their lowest point in the standings, the players made a plan to dig themselves out.
“We had a team meeting after that Christmas break and we set a goal to win two out of every three games to get to .550 winning percentage, which is what clinched last year,” said Brown. “We actually ended up passing that and we needed it.
“At no point during the year did we not believe that we have a good team. We just weren’t getting bounces for a while and we were getting injuries. Then all of a sudden we had a full squad around January.”
One of the biggest turning points for the team was the acquisition of netminder Tom McCollum, which helped stabilize the squad and helped lead to their scorching run.
“It started with solid goaltending,” said Samuelsson of his team’s turnaround. “We were up and down there for a bit, we lost Leighton because of injuries with the Hurricanes. When we got solid goaltending, our guys played with a different confidence. When a goalie gives you a chance to win every game, with as much talent as we have on our team, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
“You could tell it was a great team that had just been struggling a little bit,” said McCollum.
From that point the team solidified and showcased the talent on the roster, going 12-2-4 after the netminder came aboard.
“We picked up some players that helped us out a lot, especially confidence in the locker room,” said Dennis Robertson. “But the team just came together. We played like a bunch of individuals early, we had a lot of young guys that were trying to find their way, and we all came together down the stretch.”
Aside from the rebuilt roster, there were two things that really propelled the Checkers down the stretch. One was a resurgence on the man advantage. Charlotte had been plagued by power-play issues all season, mired in last place in the league and flirting with the all-time worst mark. But things clicked in the team’s final run and those chances started falling.
“The last 17 games or so we were like 23 percent on the power play,” said Samuelsson. “We got our shots through better and we changed our units. We changed the personnel and they delivered. It was rewarding. We worked hard all year and it was fun for the players to get some success there.”
The other factor was the team’s play on home ice. The Checkers shattered the franchise record for most home wins in a season and established themselves as a dominate force at Bojangles’ Coliseum.
“It’s hard to say,” said Samuelsson when asked what was behind the team’s strong home record. “We don’t play a different style at home or on the road, but we were just comfortable here. We were comfortable in tight games, we had a lot of solid third periods. Just the comfort level of being at home really helped us.”
While it can be tough to see in such immediacy to their elimination, but the Checkers’ improbable run to that point isn’t something to scoff at.
“It was up and down but the end result was what we wanted, to an extent,” said Patrick Dwyer. “Making it to the playoffs is a goal in every season and we ended up reaching that. We pushed a very good team to the brink.”
“I think when we look back at it and reflect, it was a pretty special thing we accomplished,” said McCollum.
For a group of players who hadn’t ever experienced playoff hockey as pros, it was certainly a memorable run.
“I think at the end of the day it’s been a great season, especially coming from where we were,” said Robertson. “We were such a young team and we were able to pull our season together from the depths there and it was fun to be a part of. It still stings because you want to be playing still, but it was fun.”
“It was a great season,” said Brown. “It was great to get some playoff experience, a lot of guys in the locker room haven’t seen that yet. I wish we would have been able to clinch a little sooner, we left it to a real dramatic ending, but it was a great year. A lot of guys improved, a lot of guys got chances up top and I think it was a really fun year as a whole.”
One of the biggest developments came behind the bench, as Samuelsson completed a rollercoaster of a first season as head coach.
Flanked by his fellow countryman in assistant coach Peter Andersson, Samuelsson was thrown right into a tough situation in his first year, helming a team that found themselves near the cellar of the standings halfway through the season.
At that point, it can be easy to lose control of the team.
“I’ve been on teams that have been out of it by Christmas, where a lot of people thought we were,” said Dwyer. “In those situations, a lot of times, it was hard to come to the rink every day and have a smile on your face and enjoy your job. And if it’s tough to come to the rink, you maybe start to say ‘There’s no way we’re making this.’”
With their handling of the situation, however, the coaching staff was able to avoid those pitfalls and keep spirits high, helping spur on the team’s furious run to the playoffs.
“I thought they did a great job,” said Dwyer. “Even in our lowest of lows, guys were coming to the rink every day knowing that you could come in and have fun and enjoy it. I think that’s what kept the hope alive for us in the sense of making the playoffs in January when we were one of the worst teams in the league. You had that excitement and that fun that keeps the dream alive.”
While he can be an intimidating presence behind the bench, the players seemed to appreciate Samuelsson’s approach to the game.
“If you have someone who is a natural authority like Ulf is, as a player you respect him,” said Andrej Nestrasil. “It’s nice that he can approach guys easily but guys aren’t going to take advantage of him because they know he’s the coach and he had a great career. Obviously he loses his mind sometimes on the bench, that’s just a part of who he is. But he’s also really good at if he yells at you one shift and you do something good on the next shift, he comes and tells you. That helps you as a player because if you only get yelled at, it’s putting you down. But if there’s a balance, you know that the coach is telling you what’s bad and what’s good and you take it better as a player.”
“I thought they had a great feel for the room and the guys,” said Dwyer. “Whether it was when to push us or when to back off a bit, when to scream at us or when to teach us.”
This also marked the first season that the team utilized a full-time video coach, something that players used to their advantage.
“I think he’s great at what he’s doing,” said Nestrasil of video coach Myles Fee. “He is more a part of the team than video coaches usually are, but in a circumstance like this where you only have two coaches, it’s a good thing because you can talk to him. I would tell him ‘I want to see all the faceoffs for the team we’re playing,’ and he would have them ready for you the next day.”
One thing set this coaching staff apart from anything else Nestrasil has been a part of, though.
“The major thing was they kept you on the positive side,” he said. “It felt more like a family.”
After his first season in an AHL head coaching role, Samuelsson can now look back at what his team was able to do.
“I had a great time,” said Samuelsson. “This is a great organization, great owner in Michael Kahn, good support from the Canes. We had a slow start but we had some veteran players come in and play nice and a lot of our younger players played and developed well. Overall it was disappointing to lose in the first round but there were a lot of good things to take with us from this season.”