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Checkers getting just what their coach says team needs

Goalie Scott Darling (33) has shuttled between the Hurricanes and Charlotte Checkers all season, one of a number of Charlotte players to do so.
Goalie Scott Darling (33) has shuttled between the Hurricanes and Charlotte Checkers all season, one of a number of Charlotte players to do so. AP

The Charlotte Checkers’ coach thinks the team needs a break. So does the Checkers’ standout goaltender.

And wouldn’t you know it – here comes a five-day Christmas break in the American Hockey League schedule for the Checkers.

A series of roster changes and a string of six games in nine days has the Checkers ready for a break, coach Mike Vellucci said after Charlotte ended a six-game home stand with a 3-1 victory Saturday night over Bridgeport Sound.

“Some of the guys are tired, and we’ve played a lot of hockey, so it was a good chance to get a break,” Vellucci said.

Goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic, who leads the AHL in victories, agreed.

“It’s a long season with 76 games, and for some of the guys, it’s a little longer, going up and down between leagues,” he said.

Nedeljkovic is among several players who have shared time between the Checkers and their NHL parent team, the Carolina Hurricanes. Forward Clark Bishop started the week with the Hurricanes, was sent down to Charlotte, and then called back up Saturday, along with the team’s No. 2 scorer, Janne Kuokkanen.

Veteran goalie Scott Darling started the season with the Hurricanes, was sent down to Charlotte to overcome a slump, was called up to the NHL and then returned to Charlotte last week.

And the Checkers’ 32-game schedule so far is among the busiest in the AHL.

Still, Charlotte arrives at the Christmas break with a 23-7-2 record and 48 points, most in the league. The Checkers have a seven-point lead over second-place Bridgeport Sound in the Atlantic Division race.

Vellucci said Saturday night’s performance was impressive.

“The game before Christmas is never usually that good,” he said. “Everyone usually has one foot out the door, but we competed hard, and we played the game the right way.”

Here’s a look at the past week and what’s ahead for the Checkers:

Tuesday: Charlotte rallied from a 2-0 deficit and took a 3-2 lead on an Aleksi Saarela goal, but the Utica Comets tied the game in the final minute of regulation and then won 4-3 in overtime. That snapped a six-game Checkers winning streak.

Friday: The Checkers absorbed their worst loss of the season, falling 6-1 to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. The Tigers scored three times on power plays against Darling.

Saturday: Nicolas Roy and Morgan Geekie broke a 0-0 tie in the second period, scoring 30 seconds apart, and the Checkers beat Bridgeport Sound 3-1.

Personnel changes: As of Saturday, Bishop and Kuokkanen are with the Carolina Hurricanes, and Darling is in Charlotte. Martin Necas, third on the team in scoring (and No. 3 in scoring among AHL rookies), is headed to Vancouver to play with the Czech Republic team in the World Junior Championships. Necas, 19, is expected back when the tournament ends Jan. 5.

Week ahead: Charlotte launches a six-game road trip, playing Friday and Saturday nights in Quebec against the Laval Rocket. The Checkers return home Jan. 11 to start a six-game home stand.

Steve Lyttle on Twitter: @slyttle