Checkers fall out of first place

For a good chunk of the season, the Charlotte Checkers had been sitting comfortably in first place in the AHL's Western Conference but their run at the top has come to an end as the top spot is now secured by the Texas Stars, who lead the Checkers by one point. This isn't due to a slump by the Checkers, though. They've won seven of their last 10 games and are still playing pretty well overall despite losing a few key pieces to the NHL. It's just that the Stars have been on a pretty incredible run lately and have been putting heat on Charlotte for a long time now. After the Checkers dropped two of their three games this past week, it allowed Texas to sneak up on them and take hold of the #1 spot in the West right at the All-Star Break.

The Checkers got some help this week with Marc-Andre Gragnani, Nicolas Blanchard and Jeremy Welsh returning to the lineup but unfortunately, their contributions weren't enough to keep them from losing two of three games. The funny thing is that Charlotte didn't play poorly in any of these games as they won the shot battle this week by a wide margin of 98-70, the goaltending was just very subpar. I usually don't like to put all of the blame on the netminders, but Justin Peters stopping only .865 of the shots he saw this week definitely played a huge factor, as did John Muse allowing 4 goals on 18 shots in the one game he started. Both had played terrifically the week before, so there isn't much of a need to panic. 

Charlotte didn't receive that much bad puck luck in regards to shooting percentage, as they converted on a little over 9% of their shots (about average), but I thought it was kind of interesting that they had eight different goal-scorers this past week and only one of them had more than one goal. The player in question here is Chris Terry, who is now one goal away from dethroning Zach Boychuk as the team's leading goal-scorere. A lot of weight is being put on his shoulders now with Boychuk, Dalpe and Bowman in Raleigh right now and he's doing a fine job carrying the load offensively. Terry also had 12 shots in Charlotte's three games played this past week, which is very encouraging to see because he was struggling to consistently get a lot of shots on goal for most of the year.

Luke Pither also had another big week as it looks like he honeymoon period with him and the Checkers will be lasting a little longer than some thought. Pither had himself a three-point game in Charlotte's 5-4 win over Abbotsford on Saturday afternoon and recorded a secondary assist on Andreas Nodl's goal in the loss to Norfolk on Wednesday night. I'm not sure how long Pither will continue to produce at this kind of level but he's been doing everything that's been asked of him and more thus far. It's given the Checkers offense a real nice boost.

Another "newer" player who really helped the Checkers this week was the aformentioned Andreas Nodl, who scored Charlotte's only goal against Norfolk on Wednesday and recorded an assist in the Abbotsford series. In addition to that, Nodl also recorded 11 shots on goal in three games. Nodl looked a bit out of place with the Checkers when he arrived the prior week but he seems to be fitting in more now, even though I'm sure he would rather be playing in the NHL.

Other big performers for Charlotte this week were Justin Shugg who had three assists, Riley Nash who had a pair of helpers and Michal Jordan who scored his fifth goal of the season and amassed nine shots on goal in three games. Brett Sutter and Marc-Andre Gragnani were both held off the scoresheet completely, which hasn't normally been the case for them this year.

The race for the top spot in the West is going to be pretty thrilling if both Charlotte and Texas can continue to play as well as they have lately. The Grand Rapids Griffins are also not far behind with 52 points in the standings, so most should be on the lookout for them, as well. The Checkers are slowly getting healthier and should see more of their better players return to the lineup as the season goes on. This will defintely lead to an interesting finish as we inch closer and closer to the playoffs.

Up next for Charlotte is a series with the Oklahoma City Barons, who are going to have a completely different roster compared to the last time the Checkers saw them. After that it's the San Antonio Rampage, who will also have a roster that will be missing a few players thanks to NHL call-ups. It should be a fun next few months.