The NHL might be locked out but hockey still lives on in the Carolinas as the Hurricanes AHL affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers, kicked off their season this past weekend with a road series in the Lonestar State. The Checkers have a lot of great talent coming in this year thanks to the NHL lockout, so hopes and expectations are very high for the team right now. It's hard not to be when you consider that the majority of their leading scorers are returning and they should have the services of AHL veterans Tim Wallace and Marc-Andre Gragnani along with having NHL talent Justin Faulk on the team for the foreseeable future. This team should be able to compete in the South Division and they had a chance to gain an advantage over their division rivals as they took on the Houston Aeros and Texas Stars to kick off the year.
The Checkers were able to get their season started on the right foot as they defeated Houston 3-1 on opening night but lost 4-3 to Texas in a shootout the next day after blowing a 3-1 lead in the third period. Starting off the year with wins would have been ideal but there were still plenty of good things to report on for the Checkers this weekend, one of which being the play of Zach Boychuk. This was supposed to be a "make-or-break" year for Boychuk as he has yet to finding his footing at the professional level and he really made a statement in these first couple of games as he tallied a goal, three assists and recorded six shots on goal.
His great play showed up in the highlight reel a couple times as his hard work led to the Checkers scoring their first goal of the season in their game against Houston. He was able to win a puck battle in the corner, get a shot on net and Tim Wallace was able to pick up the loose change and give the Checkers a 1-0 lead. Boychuk would get his first goal of the season only one game later when he took advantage of a neutral zone turnover by Texas defenseman Jordie Benn to create a scoring chance and catch his own rebound to score what was the opening goal of that contest. Boychuk also showcase some good puck-handling in the neutral zone to help set up a Riley Nash goal and he made a great initial pass to Bobby Sanguinetti, who scored on the powerplay to give the Checkers a 3-1 lead.
The lead did not last for Charlotte, but it was good to hear that Boychuk's season has started off on a strong note. Another player who stood out in both games was Justin Faulk, who recorded 10 shots on goal over the two games and picked up two assists. Checkers digital media director Paul Branecky interviewed Charlotte's head coach Jeff Daniels over the weekend and he mentioned that Faulk's play was "at a totally different level" in the Houston game, which sounds about right all things considered. Faulk is expected to exceed in this kind of competition since he has basically a full season in the NHL under his belt and it sounds like he is thriving so far.
Some other performances of note from the weekend is goaltender Justin Peters managing to keep the Checkers up 2-1 in the late stages of the Houston game despite the team getting into penalty trouble. Jerome Samson and Chris Terry also got on the scoresheet with a goal a piece in that game (Samson's coming on an empty netter) and they are both now second and third on the team in shots on goal with nine and seven respectfully. Riley Nash also scored his first goal of the season and had six shots on goal, which is a promising start.
As for not-so-promising starts, defenseman Rasmus Rissanen picked up 8 penalty minutes over the weekend including six in the Texas game alone where he was given a double minor for cross-checking and unsportsmanlike conduct. Jeremy Welsh, Victor Rask and Marc-Andre Gragnani's also turned in somewhat underwhelming performances but it's only two games so it's pointless to make any final judgments off this.
Overall, the Checkers have to be satisfied with taking three of four points on the road in their opening series but I just hope the meltdown against Texas doesn't get to them too much. Allowing a shorthanded goal to tie the game is pretty much one of the biggest momentum killers ever and the Checkers also gave up 40 shots on goal in that game, too. They managed to hang on and get a point so I won't make too much of it but I'm sure they would rather hang onto the lead next time.
Charlotte will be heading to Milwaukee this Friday for a game against the Admirals and then continue on the road the next night to play the Rockford Ice Hogs in a back-to-back series.