If you're a Carolina fan still itching for some live hockey then you are in luck because the Charlotte Checkers will be playing in the AHL playoffs. It will be the second time in three years that they have qualified for the post-season and the first time that they have earned home-ice advantage in a series since moving to Charlotte. Those who followed the Checkers during the lockout know that the team was brewing something special with how well they played for the first half of the season. They have managed to continue this success even after losing so many players to injuries, NHL graduation and other means. The players they've lost include their top defense pairing, both starting goaltenders and a few of their top scorers. Head Coach and GM Jeff Daniels has managed to get it done, though and lead the Checkers to the playoffs even with all of the roster changes.
Their first round opponent will be a familiar foe in the Oklahoma City Barons, who were divisional rivals with the Checkers in the South Division this year. The Checkers were 4-4-0 head-to-head against the Barons this year but were outscored 28-25 in those eight games. They were also on the receiving end of a couple of ugly losses to Oklahoma City, one of which coming by a score of 7-4 back in November. Charlotte has had their share of success against OKC this year, as well including a 7-0 win over them on the road, so this matchup seems to be pretty even going by this.
That being said, it's tough to go by what these two teams did against each other during the season series because their rosters are completely different from what they were in November and January, which was when most of their head-to-head games took place. This is especially true for Oklahoma City, who may have benefitted from the lockout more than any other AHL club. They are the minor league affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers and many of their top young talents played for the Barons during the lockout. Every AHL club had this benefit but the Barons had top-six caliber players such as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall & Jordan Ebere playing for them so that kind of gave them a leg up on the competition. Their roster obviously looks a lot different now that the NHL is in full-swing and the Barons have managed to overcome similar roadblocks as the Checkers to make the post-season.
After the jump, we'll talk about how the two teams current rosters match up and who has the advantage.
In the intro I said that the Barons have a completely different roster compared to earlier in the season but this statement can also apply to the Checkers. They lost their best defenseman, Justin Faulk, to the NHL after the lockout ended as well as one of their top goal-scorers in Drayson Bowman and another very good offensive defenseman in Bobby Sanguinetti. Their forward corps should be in pretty decent shape, though since they recently just got Zac Dalpe back from injury and Zach Boychuk has also returned after brief NHL stints in Pittsburgh and Nashville, so that will definitely help the Checkers up front. Charlotte should also be getting Riley Nash, Nicolas Blanchard and Tim Wallace back once the Hurricanes season is over, although Wallace's status could be up in the air after suffering an ugly-looking facial injury last Sunday.
The Checkers roster has gone through a ton of changes this year, but they've had a lot of guys who have consistently produced and one of those players is Chris Terry. He currently leads the team in goals with 25 and has 60 points in 70 games. You could make the case that Terry has been Charlotte's best player this year, as he has managed to produce even after Charlotte's roster changes and having to adjust to different centers. Of course, it helps that Charlotte is a very strong team down the middle and their center depth has helped them survive this wave of injuries. Both Brett Sutter and Jeremy Welsh have been strong pivots for Charlotte and their depth will get even better once Riley Nash returns. The mid-season acquisition of Luke Pither also helped them, as he has been almost a point-per-game player since being traded for.
Oklahoma City's forward corps has had to adjust to similar changes after the lockout and their task was much more difficult since they had to replace a few players who were leading the AHL in numerous scoring categories even after their departure. The Barons weren't going to get anyone who could produce at the levels that Hall & Eberle were for them, but they've had quite a few forwards performing well even after the lockout, the main guy being Mark Arcobello. Arcobello is a small player at only 5'9" but he has been an ace play-maker and scorer at just about every level he's been at. He leads the Barons in points with 68 in 74 games and has been producing a ton of offense with a shot per game rate of 3.18. He has been similar to Terry in that he has been able to produce at a high rate even despite his team going through sizable roster changes. Another guy who has played well since the lockout ended is Toni Rajala. He started the season off in Stockton of the ECHL but was promoted after recording 38 points in 29 games and has scored at nearly a point-per-game pace with the Barons over 46 games. Philippe Cornet is another player promoted from the ECHL who has produced well for the Barons and he has given the Checkers a lot of trouble in the head-to-head series with four goals and eight points over seven games. The Barons have also gotten mid-season help in the form of Jonathan Cheechoo, who has 32 points in 35 games since being acquired.
So both teams forward corps seem to have plenty of firepower even after the roster changes, but their defense corps is a slightly different story. Both teams lost their top blue-liners to the NHL after the lockout in Justin Faulk & Justin Schultz respectively. Oklahoma City's defense is in better shape than Charlotte's, though since the Checkers are still crushed by injuries. They recently lost Marc-Andre Gragnani for the season, who played a big role as their powerplay quarterback and Michal Jordan is also missed the last month or so with an injury. Their top shutdown option in Brett Bellemore is still healthy, though and he is sure to play some big minutes in this series along with 21-year old Rasmus Rissanen. Bobby Raymond has also produced well as a mid-season call-up from the Florida Everblades and Carolina's 2011 first round pick Ryan Murphy should help soften the blow of losing Gragnani.
Oklahoma City certainly had their work cut out for them, but the rest of their defense corps has managed to stay relatively healthy for most of the season. They also have some nice pieces here in rookies Martin Marincin and Taylor Fedun who are both solid, mobile defensemen and have logged some big minutes all season. Colten Teubert has also played some big minutes for the Barons this year, although he appears to be struggling if his -11 rating is any indication. I take those numbers with a grain of salt, though since they often don't tell the whole story. They also traded for Garrett Stafford of the Hershey Bears to provide some help for their blue-line and he has been fairly solid in his eight games with the Barons. The Barons defense corps has been able to stay healthy for most of the season, but they are all still very young. Not including Schultz, the Barons have used five rookies on their defense for more than 20 games this year including their top defense pairing, so it will be interesting to see how they perform in the playoffs. Charlotte is also a very young team, though so this factor could end up being a wash.
One area where the Checkers are at a disadvantage is goaltending because both of their starting goalies were lost to the NHL and they can't get Justin Peters back without him passing through waivers. This means their goaltending tandem will consist of John Muse, Rob Madore and Mike Murphy. Muse helped the Everblades win the Kelly Cup last year, but he has a sub-.900 save percentage in 16 AHL games played this season so that is a concern. Madore, on the other hand, has been fantastic in nine games played with the Checkers this year but one has to wonder how long he will be able to hold up since this is his first year in the AHL. If he doesn't pan out then they can always turn to Murphy, who has playoff experience but is rusty from not having played many games in awhile. The Barons, on the other hand, have had a consistent tandem all season of Yann Danis and Olivier Roy with Danis getting the bulk of the starts. Danis hasn't standing on his head every night with his .911 save percentage but he's been solid this year and should be getting most of the starts for the Barons. If anything, the Barons have a lot more certainty in goal and that might play to their advantage.
A good number of players on the Checkers should be part of the Carolina Hurricanes future, so this series is worth keeping an eye on if you want to get a glimpse at some of the Canes young talent. Plus, playoff hockey is always great to watch no matter the league, so I will be watching this series with significant interest and you should, too.