After beginning the 2015-16 season with increased expectations, the Charlotte Checkers lost back-to-back games at home in mid-December and fell to 11-11-0.
Since then, they’ve been one of the hottest teams in the American Hockey League. The Checkers (25-12-3) have collected at least a point in 17 of their past 18 games, winning 14 of them, and are in third place in the Western Conference.
“I think there was definitely a point in the season where it was like, ‘OK, yeah we’re definitely better than people thought and maybe even better than people thought at the beginning of the year,’ ” captain and leading scorer Derek Ryan said.
While Ryan and defenseman Trevor Carrick have been named AHL All-Stars, this has been a group effort. The Checkers recalled goaltender Daniel Altshuller from the East Coast Hockey League and he went 9-1-1 with a .941 save percentage before earning a promotion last week to the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes.
First-year coach Mark Morris said Altshuller’s play helped settle the team, and a more confident group has improved in other areas.
“We just kind of ran with it,” said Zach Boychuk, who plays left wing. “Danny kind of sparked us a bit. Guys just started contributing. We’ve got a lot of firepower.”
The Checkers, who play at Rockford (Ill.) Wednesday, are fourth in the AHL in goals per game, but no one has more than 13. Another ECHL recall, Ethan Werek, has six goals in 11 games, and is emblematic of how the Checkers have been able to plug holes created by injury or NHL promotion and keep rolling.
Veteran goaltender Drew MacIntyre missed time because of the Spengler Cup and an injury. The other top offensive addition besides Ryan, veteran forward T.J. Hensick, missed 11 games with an injury.
The by-committee approach has worked. The Checkers keep winning.
“We’ve got everything,” Brendan Woods said. “We’ve got scorers. We’ve got toughness. We’ve got great defense and goaltending. We’ve just put it together.”
In recent seasons, lineup attrition because the Carolina Hurricanes needed reinforcements exposed a lack of depth for the Checkers. This year, the opposite reaction has occurred.
Despite losing two young defensemen expected to play key roles, multiple forwards and a hot goaltender to the NHL, the Checkers have surged toward the top of the AHL standings.
“It’s a lot more fun,” said Brody Sutter. “There are a lot more laughs, and guys are enjoying being at the rink.”