After a red-hot run down the final few months of the season, the Checkers clinched their playoff berth in Chicago on Saturday, the last day of the AHL’s regular season.
“We pushed hard and now we’re in it,” said head coach Ulf Samuelsson. “We’re very excited.”
Given where the team is now, it wasn’t that long ago that it appeared destined for an early offseason. The Checkers bottomed out on Jan. 4, when their .394 points percentage put them in a tie for last place in the AHL.
That’s when things turned around.
“We’ve had a lot of guys play out of their roles and job descriptions and they stepped up big,” said Samuelsson. “Even though we were down we kept our team together and they kept swinging and finally started to put some points on the board. Then the momentum kept building and building.”
That momentum would carry the Checkers all the way back up the standings as one of the hottest teams in the league, losing only 10 more games in regulation for the remainder of the season and clawing their way into the postseason for only the third time in franchise history.
“It’s a good feeling,” said Phil Di Giuseppe. “We were pretty confident down the stretch and we used that. We pulled it through. The boys are excited. This is my third year here and we hadn’t made the playoffs, so it’s going to be something special.”
Di Giuseppe is one of a group of Carolina prospects who have yet to get a taste of the postseason as a pro. They’ll now get the chance thanks to pulling off what no team in four years has done.
“I think the difference is the momentum and the confidence that we have,” said Di Giuseppe of what has changed from years past. “This year, going into every game we knew we had a chance. I thought we played like we were more confident than in past years. It’s special.”
The postseason will present some new challenges to the team across the board, but perhaps most notably for a young team like Charlotte is the addition of even more contests at the end of a grueling 76-game slate.
“Rest is important through the whole season,” said Samuelsson. “We spent a lot of time analyzing and looking at days off and travel. And then from our owner Michael Kahn we got some help with our travel. All those things have paid off here at the end. We’re going to regroup and take a couple of days to relax and let it sink in, but we’re already starting to prepare.”
“We had two days off here, but I think the boys will find their legs,” said Di Giuseppe. “I think those two months of just winning will help us.”
While their breakneck pace down the stretch to grab a playoff spot has taken a lot out of the team, a positive benefit for the Checkers is that they have essentially been playing playoff-esque games over the last two months.
“We’ve had to keep our focus and we’ve had to play at our best,” said Samuelsson. “Basically we just need to keep playing the way we have over the last couple of months. We’ve been really solid and we’re really happy with a lot of aspects of our game. Playoffs is an opportunity. Everyone starts from scratch.”
All in all, for a team that squeaked into the playoffs on the last day of the season, the Checkers hold themselves as a force to be reckoned with now.
“I just think it’s having that belief in the guys around you that we’re going to pull through,” said Di Giuseppe. “Tommy [McCollum] is going to make a big save for us. Our power play was brutal at the beginning of the year and now every time we get a power play we know we have a chance. I think we have more belief in each other and that’s going to make a difference.”
INJURY UPDATESFor as hot as the Checkers have been over the last few months, it’s easy to forget that they have been missing several high-end pieces to injury.
Now, as they head into the playoffs, they could get some reinforcements.
The trio of Aleksi Saarela, Lucas Wallmark and Danny Kristo were among a handful of players who were on the ice this morning for a quick skate with assistant coach Peter Andersson. Kristo, an established AHL scorer who recorded 10 points in his first 14 games with Charlotte, has missed each of the last eight games for the Checkers, while leading goal scorer Wallmark and newfound sniper Saarela have missed the last four and two contests, respectively.
While he didn’t delve into specifics, Samuelsson seemed positive on the three players’ statuses for this week.
“All three are getting close,” he said. “We’re not sure exactly when they’ll return, but they’re all day-to-day.”
As three of the team’s top scoring threats and two of their top centers, the addition of any of Saarela, Wallmark or Kristo would be a significant boost.
“All of them are tremendous hockey players and we’d be excited to get one of them back,” said Samuelsson. “So we’re excited and hopefully they’ll become available soon.”
There was a more surprising face on the ice this morning as well, as Michael Leighton strapped on the pads for the first time since undergoing surgery for an injury that has sidelined him since Feb. 17.
While he has yet to rejoin the team for a full practice, the veteran seems to be on the right track.
“Leighton is getting closer,” said Samuelsson. “He’s day-to-day, maybe week-to-week, but he’s getting really close.”
The Checkers are currently in good hands between the pipes, as McCollum has been near flawless since joining the team, helping to spark their run.
“He came in and stabilized our team and has given us a chance to win every night,” said Samuelsson of McCollum. “Our confidence started from the day he go here. We’ve really fed off of his energy and the way he plays.”
Even so, once Leighton is cleared, the Checkers will have a decision to make between the pipes, though picking between two established game changers isn’t a bad problem to have.
“McCollum is obviously going to start Game 1 because we’re not sure if Leighton is going to be ready or not,” said Samuelsson. “But if he is healthy, we have two great goaltenders to choose from.”
HOME ICE ADVANTAGEThe way that the AHL’s first-round playoff format is, the Checkers will get to play Games 1 and 2 on home ice before jetting to Chicago for the remainder of the series.
Given Charlotte’s dominance at Bojangles’ Coliseum this year – a record-breaking 27-10-1 mark at home – those two contests could be a nice boost for the lower-seeded Checkers.
“We’re comfortable at home here,” said Samuelsson. “We’ve got a nice fan base and a good building so we’re turning into a good home team.”
Their opponents have turned in a strong campaign at home this season as well, making it even more important for the Checkers to build themselves some room early on in the series.
“It’s going to be really important to get at least one game if not both here at home to propel us when we play in their building,” said Di Giuseppe. “They have a loud building with those stupid fireworks. So these two games are going to set up the series for us.”