The Checkers’ season ended last week, after Hershey closed out a hard-fought, second-round series on its home ice.
There has been some time to process between then and Monday’s exit interview day, but the sting of that exit remains.
“I’m still in the stage where I’m very disappointed that we’re not still playing,” said head coach Geordie Kinnear. “Because I wanted it for the guys and their work ethic.”
The Game 4 defeat wrapped up a series which saw the Checkers seemingly on the precipice of breaking through several times - including their triumphant Game 3 win to extend the series - but ultimately fall short against one of the Eastern Conference’s top teams.
“I feel like there weren’t many things we could have done better,” said Cory Conacher of the series against the Bears. “A couple bounces here and there, maybe avoiding some of the mistakes back-to-back that maybe cost us a few goals. But I feel like for the most part we outplayed Hershey for most of that series. They just took advantage of the Grade-A chances more than we did.”
“In the Hershey series we didn’t get rewarded for it,” said Kinnear. “But I truly felt the product and the recipe was there. I thought defensively we were pretty tight but again, we gave up too many goals in the end.”
Having a season cut short before reaching the ultimate goal is always a tough pill to swallow. Looking at the Checkers’ journey over the last seven months, though, there were plenty of bright spots to pick out on the optimistic front.
“From day one to the final product, it took a long time to get there, to be honest,” said Kinnear. “It took us a lot of hard work to get the product to be successful, and at points in the season I think you saw some really high-end hockey. There was a lot of positive stuff. It’s unfortunate that we just couldn’t get it done.”
The nature of the AHL dictates that nearly every season brings with it a fair share of roster challenges - with the waves of recalls and injuries creating holes and inciting shuffling. This Checkers squad was not an exception.
“This group worked extremely hard to even get in the playoffs,” said Kinnear. “If you really look at it, the lineups that we were putting out there at times were a challenge for the group, but we won a lot of hockey games. I don’t think people realize that we didn’t have our group for much of the season. I just talked about Dalps [Zac Dalpe] not being here, [Alex] Lyon wasn’t here for a long period of time, we lost Nasher [Riley Nash], [Connor] Bunnaman was out for a long period of time. So it’s a credit to those young guys who filled in and really stepped up.”
Featuring a wide range of experience levels and plenty of new faces, the Charlotte locker room battled through that adversity and solidified throughout the year into a cohesive unit.
“It’s probably one of the best groups I’ve been on,” said forward Gerry Mayhew. “From the vets to the rookies to the middlemen, it was unbelievable.”
“I’m proud of them,” said alternate captain Riley Nash of his team. “When you look from start to finish, practice, games, it was as consistent of a group that I’ve been around. Especially in the American League with younger guys, it’s a little more rare to find that.”
The Panthers became Charlotte’s NHL affiliate in 2020, but this was the first campaign to feature a pure partnership between the two sides - the Checkers opted out of the 2020-21 season and housed both Florida and Seattle prospects in 2021-22.
“You look at the last two years, they were unique years,” said Kinnear. “We’re looking to continue to build on being a really good hockey team with an environment of development, winning and how we want to play the right way all the time. I felt that we accomplished that this year, now we just need to take another step with regards to our first and second-year players taking another big step.”
After struggling to have their AHL club make the playoffs for several years, the Panthers have seen the Checkers do it each of the last two seasons - a successful run that has provided beneficial experience for the Florida prospects, as well as showing them the challenge of playoff hockey firsthand.
“When you get to the playoffs it’s just another level,” said Kinnear. “It’s really hard to win. You look at it, only one team wins in the end. The normal thing is to not win in the end. We have to become a team where everyone raises their level to an elite level, competes and sacrifices to win in the end. We won three elimination games, that’s not easy to do. We just couldn’t get that fourth one. It’s unfortunate.”
“When you start a season, your goal is to win the championship,” said defenseman Anthony Bitetto. “The biggest thing that we learned was just how hard it actually is.”
Taking that next step forward was a common point of emphasis as the team now prepares to head into the offseason.
“It was nice to get some of these guys their first playoff games under their belt,” said Conacher. “That will only help for next year and years to come.”
“I think we were pretty young this year - I know on the back end we were quite young,” said Nash. “When you go through that and you experience that, you kind of learn what works and what doesn’t and how you need to play. Having that makes us a little more battle-tested for next year. Hopefully not forgetting what this feels like and what it takes to get there, but also taking another step in the right direction.”
All things considered, the Checkers can draw plenty of positives from this campaign - both looking back at what this group did and ahead at the opportunities for growth.
“We had a young team and I thought we fought well,” said Bitetto. “I think Charlotte fans should be pretty happy with the way the young group responds.”
“Obviously the results weren’t there,” said Nash. “But I thought we did a lot of the right things, a lot of the building blocks to build on and have success in the future.”
That doesn’t erase the sting of this elimination. But it does provide fuel.
“To be honest, as a coach it hurts the most because I know - being in those four walls - the work that Bunnaman, Mayhew, Bitetto, all these core guys and leaders put into it,” said Kinnear. “For me it’s heartbreaking for that reason. But it’s got to motivate you moving forward to keep building. You have to continue to put the work in. We have to put the work in over the summer, we have to get better as a group, because I want to be that last team standing.”