Right now, two things are certain: the Checkers have two games remaining on their regular season schedule and then they are headed for the Calder Cup Playoffs.
The specifics beyond that - what position they will end up in, who they will play, when they will play, how many rounds they will have to play - are still up in the air, and their results largely hinge on a high-stakes weekend.
“These are probably the two biggest games of the year,” said defenseman Chase Priskie. “We’re still playing for a division title.”
The Checkers currently find themselves in a dogfight atop the Atlantic Division with the Providence Bruins and the Springfield Thunderbirds. The three squads have traded grasps of first place over the last few weeks, with the Bruins currently holding a slight edge over the Checkers - who have a razor-thin advantage on the Thunderbirds.
With the AHL using points percentage to determine the standings for this season and with the Checkers playing 72 games compared to the Bruins and Thunderbirds’ 76, forecasting the race is a bit convoluted.
But the basic takeaway is this: the Checkers have a fighting chance at capturing their second-straight division title and earning the Atlantic’s top seed.
“This is what we really play for,” said Priskie. “Everything is just a bit heightened, every detail matters that much more. We’re just taking our focus into Friday night and preparing as if these were playoff games.”
Along with a division title, earning that top seed would seal home-ice advantage for a Checkers squad that has thrived under the Bojangles Coliseum roof.
“It would be huge,” said Priskie. “We play extremely well at home and we play extremely well in front of our awesome fans. Anything that can give us an advantage rolling into the playoffs is greatly appreciated.”
“Playing in front of the fans here has been unbelievable,” said rookie forward Cole Schwindt. “They’ve been here every night, they’ve been up and they’ve been cheering. That gives us a bit of a spark and getting to play in front of them with home-ice advantage would be phenomenal.”
Finishing as one of the Atlantic’s top two seeds unlocks another significant wrinkle - having a bye past the best-of-three opening round and moving directly to the second round, which could present a double-edged sword of sorts.
“You can look at it a couple of different ways,” said Checkers Assistant Coach Dan Bylsma. “If we play the play-in round, it’s still potentially seven, eight, nine days before we play. If we don’t play that round it’s like three weeks. So there’s a benefit of getting that time off but there’s also concern of not playing hockey in three-plus weeks and going into a game. But we’ll approach that when we get the opportunity to approach that.”
The Checkers are facing down two big games of consequence, but the team has been ramping up their game to shine on this stage for some time now.
“Our approach for the last 10 games here has been getting our team to play playoff hockey,” said Bylsma. “We’ve got two big games coming this weekend and we’re approaching them as playoff games in that regard.”
The two squads on the schedule for Charlotte are Hartford and Providence - one team playing for their playoff lives and one team directly battling for the division crown.
Suffice to say there won’t be any rolling over by opponents this weekend.
“We’re still fighting for position and Hartford is desperately fighting for position,” said Bylsma.
“All the games coming up here are going to be the same,” said Schwindt. “Everybody is going to be playing to win.”
The Checkers’ path forward remains unclear - even with a perfect weekend, there will still be scoreboard watching for Providence and Springfield (who currently have six and five games left, respectively) - but the bottom line for the team is to take care of business and be prepared for what is hopefully a long playoff run.
“Our focus right now is Friday night in Hartford,” said Priskie. “Go out there and put our best foot forward for the first 10 and just see where we land and roll from there.”
“I think it’s been our team’s mentality for the last 20 games or so,” said Bylsma. “We’re trying to get to championship hockey. Our guys have really bought into that and played playoff team hockey.”