A tough loss in Game 1 of the truncated first-round series against Lehigh Valley had their backs against the wall as the threat of their postseason run ending loomed over them.
“Game 1, to be honest, I didn’t like how we played at all,” said Head Coach Geordie Kinnear. “We talked about it on the off day, about where we had our success and what made us great. As a group we kind of owned it.”
Then Game 2 came and changed everything.
“I look at Game 2 as our best game in a long time,” said Kinnear of the Checkers’ thrilling overtime win. “We saw how we like to play as a group and we set ourselves up for success in the next game. It’s about how we play.”
That overtime triumph snowballed for the Checkers, who advanced the following night after a dominant Game 3 victory over the Phantoms.
“It was huge,” said forward Mackie Samoskevich. “That shows that we’re a resilient group and you need that in the playoffs.”
Turning what could have been a disappointingly quick playoff exit into a come-from-behind series victory has this Checkers squad charged up as they look to keep things rolling into round two.
“When you work hard and you have success, you’re confident,” said Kinnear. “They worked hard, they had some success, so it’s a confident group. It’s about how the individuals compete and buy in to how we want to play as a group. At the end of the day, it’s the teams that believe in each other and play for each other that win in the end.”
FOCUS ON GETTING BETTERAfter a gap of just two days between the end of the regular season and the start of their first-round series, the Checkers have a bit more time to regroup before their second-round matchup begins on Friday.
That doesn’t mean the workload is any less intense this week, though.
“Our focus has always been the same,” said Kinnear. “We want to have the intent of getting better - working on certain elements and aspects of our game. The team that goes on over time is the team that continues to get better.”
Charlotte is facing down a tough test in the Hershey Bears - a team that narrowly missed out on a division title but earned a bye past the first round.
As has been the mantra all year, though, the Checkers’ focus this week remains inward.
“We’re looking at a really good hockey team that we have to play to our identity against,” said Kinnear. “We can’t be watching what Hershey’s doing, we have to be on it right from the drop of the puck. We want to prepare for Hershey and what they do - their strengths and weaknesses - but it comes down to how we play. That was our focus today - things that make us great. The last two days have been that.”
While it’s not quite as abbreviated as the opening round, the Atlantic Division Semifinal is still a shorter series - clocking in as a best-of-five scenario. That setup leaves no room for easing in.
“You want to start on time, your start is the key,” said Kinnear. “We want to get to our game right away. It is a short series, so you can’t wait around to see what the other team’s doing. You have to get on it.”
The Checkers continue to fine-tune their game with a week of skating at Bojangles Coliseum, and a scheduling quirk means that they’ll host the first two games of the series on that same ice - giving them a raucous home crowd to feed off of.
“They’ve got some passionate fans here, I learned that right away,” said Samoskevich.
“Anytime you play in front of these fans in Charlotte they’re electric,” said Kinnear. “They’re loud and they’re into it. The guys feed off it. We’re excited to be at home, we didn’t get a chance last year to start at home against Springfield, so we want to make sure we take advantage of it this time.”
SCORING DEPTHComing out of the first round, Connor Bunnaman stood tied for second across the Calder Cup Playoffs in scoring - racking up five points (2g, 3a) in three games.
That hot start to the postseason is the manifestation of all the work put in by the 25-year-old forward - who registered 11 of his 16 goals and 18 of his 23 points this season over the final 25 games.
“At the start of the year Bunny didn’t have a lot of goals but was getting a lot of Grade-A chances and playing the right way,” said Kinnear. “He continued to work on his game at the rink, working on his shot, working on certain plays. You get rewarded when you start to master your craft. You get in certain situations in a game, you want to make sure that you’ve practiced it 100 times to make sure you’re prepared. He’s done that.”
Bunnaman is hardly the only Checker stepping up offensively thus far in the playoffs. Charlotte scored 11 goals over the final two games of its first-round series with 10 different skaters lighting the lamp.
A portion of those goals came from the more physical corners of the Charlotte lineup - especially in Game 3, when the Checkers converted multiple times on loose pucks floating around the crease.
“Big bodies and guys that want to play physical usually have the most success in the playoffs,” said Kinnear. “Those guys continue to play physical and play the right way, they’ll get rewarded with that secondary scoring for us.”
ON THE MENDThe emergence of that depth scoring came at a key time for the Checkers, as Game 3 provided some injury turmoil on the Charlotte bench.
“I lost quite a few players during the second period,” said Kinnear. “Lost Sourds [Justin Sourdif] for a bit, lost Samo [Mackie Samoskevich] for a bit. So other guys were getting more minutes. You look at [Dominic] Franco, I bumped him up to Sourds’ spot for a period. It’s about guys stepping in, I give Franco a lot of credit for stepping in.”
Sourdif and Samoskevich weren’t able to finish that Game 3 win, but there’s good news on that front now. Both forwards missed practice on Monday - with Kinnear calling it a rest day for Sourdif - but returned for Tuesday’s skate as full participants.
“We’re just taking it day-by-day,” said Kinnear. “We’re very hopeful that they’ll all be in Game 1.”
The Checkers were dealt a blow in Game 1 as well, when Gerry Mayhew was sidelined for the remainder of the series.
It removed a key element from the Charlotte offense - Mayhew tied for the team lead in goals and, in fact, from Jan. 14 to the end of the regular season only one player across the whole AHL scored more goals than him.
But there was a glimmer of optimism in his diagnosis, though, and “Gerry wants to play” became the rallying cry for Games 2 and 3.
“That was part of our motivation,” said Kinnear. “He’s a guy that’s battled all year for everybody, played the right way and bought into the team environment. He’s a great team guy, so we wanted to make sure he got another opportunity to play. We’re hoping he plays on Friday.”