During the season, Checkers broadcaster TJ Chillot checks in with a weekly blog highlighting everything Checkers hockey.
What an incredible opening weekend at Bojangles! For the first time since entering the American Hockey League, the Checkers opened the season at home and the atmosphere was absolutely electric. I remember my first game as the Voice of the Checkers last season and how enthralled I was by the fans and their love for this team, but something about this past weekend was special. The team on the ice noticed, too, and made sure to reward the 14,000-plus who came out to the Boplex with two big wins. Let’s jump into my thoughts from this past weekend, some premonitions about the upcoming series with Hershey, and more!

Off On The Right Foot

The Checkers took down Hartford in back-to-back games this weekend, 4-3 in overtime on Friday night and 3-1 on Saturday. It’s the first time the Checkers have opened the season with back-to-back wins since the 2018-19 season when they beat the Rochester Americans in consecutive games on the road.

Thank A Vet

This Checkers team is loaded with veteran leadership - both on and off the ice when you consider the hirings of Assistant Coaches Bobby Sanguinetti and Jared Staal. Looking at the guys on the ice, the Checkers have Anthony Bitetto, J-F Berube, Michael Del Zotto, Riley Nash, and Chris Tierney all with 9+ years of pro-hockey experience. That’s a wealth of hockey knowledge that could fill a library if the five of them ever wrote down everything they know. The best part about this particular group? Just because they’re veterans, doesn’t mean they’re burdens. I know a lot of detractors will say that, “Veteran is just a nice way to say ‘too old’ and ‘can’t hack it anymore.’” Well, Nash opened his season with three points against Hartford (1G-2A), Tierney netted a goal and assisted on another, J-F Berube made 19nsaves in Friday’s game to earn the win, while Del Zotto and Bitetto helped lock down the blue line. By the way, this is all WITHOUT the captain and heartbeat of the team, Zac Dalpe. Every team needs leadership of guys who have been through it all, guys who can (and are willing) to bring the younger prospects under their wing. This Checkers team has that - and then some. What’s even better, through the first two games of the season, they’re showing by doing.

Who Is Anton Levtchi?

Fans on Friday night were quickly introduced to one of the newest Checkers - Anton Levtchi. The Finnish-born forward netted two goals in the season opener including a power-play goal and the game winner in overtime. Who exactly is Anton Levtchi? After signing with the Panthers this offseason, Levtchi is playing his first season of pro-hockey in North America. Levtchi comes to the Checkers after five seasons in Liiga, the top Finnish professional league. Last year, Levtchi was awarded the Golden Helmet Award (League MVP), thanks to his offensive production where he led the league in goals and points. There’s always a question that comes with players who competed in Europe for their entire lives, there’s a level of adjustment required to play in North America on the larger sheet of ice, but Levtchi made those adjustments rather quickly and is certainly a player to watch on this Checkers roster.

Bunny Is Back?

Connor Bunnaman played for two AHL teams last season, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms and the Charlotte Checkers. After being involved in an NHL deal, Bunnaman left Pennsylvania and arrived on the scene a completely new player. Call it a change of scenery, but this Connor Bunnaman who’s been dressing for the Checkers is not the same player I remember watching in the first half of the season last year when he wore black and orange. Maybe it’s the Checkers/Florida Panthers system that better fits Bunnaman’s game, but his presence is notable. When I watch him, I see a guy who plays with a “penalty kill” mentality, even when he’s out there during even-strength shifts. Up by two goals but skates and hits like the Checkers were down by two. I know that’s something the Head Coach Geordie Kinnear appreciates.

Guzda Looked Great

Mack Guzda made his professional hockey debut on Saturday night against the Wolfpack and the lanky goaltender was easily the star of the show. In the first period alone, Guzda made two incredible saves to keep the game scoreless. The second save, a shutdown stop with Hartford Captain Johnny Brodzinski bearing down on goal shorthanded ultimately led to a chance the other way for the Checkers and resulted in Bunnaman’s power-play goal to open the scoring. The former Barrie Colt netminder was incredible in his debut, making 30 saves - and if not for a garbage time power-play goal with just 4.4 seconds left in the game, would have opened his career with a shutout. I’m more than excited to watch what Leo Luongo does with Guzda’s development and how far the youngster can go.

No Preseason, No Problem

The Checkers really impressed me with how conditioned they looked during their first two games considering the team was one of a few who didn’t play in a single preseason contest. I mean, the team’s first game of the year went into overtime and they didn’t show a single second of slowing down. Granted, the OT period was only 30 seconds long or so, but their stamina was so top notch, I’m convinced they could have made it a full 20 minutes before showing some sluggishness.

If You're Not First, You're Last

Not only did the Checkers get wins in both of their first games, they were also the first team to score in each of those contests. While it’s not really an important stat so early in the season, it’s something to keep in mind because the Checkers were a robust 23-8-2-1 last season when scoring first. That’s a win rate of 68% and something that might be a big piece to the puzzle later this season. When you’re on the road, getting that first goal helps take away the home ice advantage for your opponents by taking the crowd out of the game. When you’re home, like the Checkers were last weekend and will be for their next two coming up this weekend, it really pulls your own fans into the action and makes it that much harder for the opposition to mount any kind of momentum. It’s doubly effective if the goal is scored early in the game, like Charlotte did on Friday when Aleksi Heponiemi netted the first goal around four and a half minutes in.

Arbitrary Aleksi Stat

Speaking of Aleksi Heponiemi, did you know he’s scored the first goal of the Checkers season in back-to-back years? I found that interesting because if you look at the rosters from the last two season openers, there are only four players who have suited up in both games - Logan Hutsko, Henry Bowlby, Lucas Carlsson, and Hepo. I’m not a math wizard nor a gambler, but I can tell you that the odds of Heponiemi scoring the first goal of the season in back-to-back years, with that kind of roster turnover, weren’t very high.

Checkers Vs. Chocolate

Up next for the boys in red is a two-game set with the Hershey Bears, a team coming into the series also 2-0-0-0 on the year. The chocolate and white took down two different opponents this past weekend - Utica and Lehigh Valley - both at home in Hershey. This is a very revived Bears team that has added a slew of players, not the least of which include former Thunderbird - and Checker killer - Sam Anas. They’re led by new bench boss Todd Nelson after the departure of Scott Allen, who is assisting in the NHL with Washington. The good news for Charlotte - they host the Bears at home and that home-ice advantage is always an edge for the Checkers.

Opening Weekend(s)

Technically, Opening Weekend was last Friday and Saturday with the games against Hartford, but after those two big wins and the way Bojangles was losing its lid with the great fan interaction and events, why not stretch it out to the upcoming games? Unofficially, of course. It’s like when you have a birthday on a Wednesday and stretch it out to both surrounding weekends. The Checkers have some incredible promotions coming up this weekend including Haunted Night on Friday night - complete with a School Supply Drive presented by First National Bank. All fans who bring at least 10 school supplies will receive a free ticket to our game on Dec. 2. Them on Saturday, you can celebrate Oktoberfest with the Checkers and make a charitable contribution at the same time! Thanks to our friends at Charlotte Mechanical, fans can get a special ticket package for $40 that includes a ticket to the game Saturday night, a custom Oktoberfest Checkers pint glass, and will include a $5 donation to the Move For Jenn Foundation supporting sarcoma and other bone cancers. As an added bonus, fans can fill up the pint glass pre-game with some Hops on One Leg® NE IPA. The fun doesn’t stop there, either! Saturday is our first Fairfield Inn and Suites Family night with a 40% savings off groups of four or more. PLUS, Charlotte Mechanical is also getting into the giving by sponsoring the 704 Coat Drive. Fans who donate a gently used or new coat will receive a free ticket to our game on Nov. 4.

So what are you waiting for? The Checkers are 2-0 to start the season, they’re hosting a division rival who’s also 2-0 coming in, and we need every voice in the Queen City to get loud at the Boplex this weekend! With two options to get free tickets to a future game, discounted tickets on Saturday for groups, and not one, not two, but THREE charitable efforts, it’s a feel good weekend at Bojangles Coliseum. It’ll feel even better with you there and the Checkers getting two more big wins!

We’ll talk to you next week with another edition of In the Trapezoid with TJ!