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The Charlotte Checkers are halfway to the Calder Cup, but the going gets tougher now.
Having disposed of the Providence Bruins and Hershey Bears in the opening playoff series, the Checkers open the American Hockey League’s Eastern Conference best-of-7 finals Friday night.
The Checkers have been dominant in the Calder Cup playoffs, winning seven of their eight games. But their next opponent, the defending AHL champion Toronto Marlies, are 7-0 in postseason play.
The opening faceoff is set for 7 p.m. Friday at Bojangles Coliseum, and here are four key themes in the series:
Toughest test yet: Charlotte had the AHL’s best record during the regular season and has home-ice advantage over the Marlies. But there are plenty of reasons to be concerned.
Toronto has been dominant in the playoffs, sweeping Rochester and Cleveland. The Marlies have plenty of players left from the team that won the championship a year ago, besting Texas in a seven-game final series.
And the Marlies were 3-1 against Charlotte this season, including a sweep of the Checkers on Jan. 19-20
Behave, or else: The Checkers have been penalized more than any other AHL team in the playoffs – an average of 20 minutes per game. They’ve skated short-handed 38 times in the eight playoff games.
That’s bad news against a Marlies team that has scored on nearly 40 percent of its power-play opportunities in the playoffs. That’s an absurdly high percentage, and it means there’s a good chance any Charlotte penalties will be converted into Toronto goals.
Fortunately, the Checkers have the league’s best penalty-kill unit, but coach Mike Vellucci said he wants his players to avoid being banished to the penalty box.
Checkers rested, healthy: Both teams swept their second-round series and had lengthy breaks before the third round. But the rest was important for the Checkers, who got Andrew Poturalski, Tomas Jurco and Clark Bishop back from injuries. Poturalski leads the AHL in playoff scoring this season.
“The break was good for us. We needed it,” Vellucci said.
Ignore the regular season? The Marlies were 3-1 against Charlotte in the regular season, but Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe says he’s more interested in how the two teams have played recently.
“So much time has elapsed since we played them in the regular season,” Keefe said of the four games, played between Dec. 31 and Jan. 20.
Marlies winger Colin Greening added, “It’s two different teams, in two different stages of their season paths. They’re a good team. They finished on top of the league for a reason.”
Games 1 and 2 will be in Charlotte, at 7 p.m. Friday and 6 p.m. Saturday. Games 3 and 4 will be in Toronto, at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday. If a Game 5 is needed, it will be at 7 p.m. next Friday in Toronto.
Game 6 would be in Charlotte at 7 p.m. May 26 (the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend), with a Game 7 at 7 p.m. May 28 at Bojangles Coliseum.
The series winner will face the Western Conference champion, Chicago or San Diego, for the Calder Cup in a best-of-7 series that probably would begin around June 1.
Steve Lyttle on Twitter: @slyttle