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Checkers still 1st, but it’s not all rosy these days

The Charlotte Checkers have struggled of late, but goalie Alex Nedeljkovic (35), who has bounced back and forth from the Carolina Hurricanes of the NHL, has stayed solid.
The Charlotte Checkers have struggled of late, but goalie Alex Nedeljkovic (35), who has bounced back and forth from the Carolina Hurricanes of the NHL, has stayed solid. AP

The Charlotte Checkers remain comfortably atop the American Hockey League’s Atlantic Division and have the AHL’s best record.

But it’s fair to say that the Checkers have hit a bit of a rough patch.

In their first 42 games this season, the Checkers averaged 1.5 points earned per game. Teams receive two points for a victory and one for an overtime or shootout loss.

But in the past 10 games, Charlotte’s average dropped to 0.8 per contest.

Coach Mike Vellucci addressed the situation before the team began a five-game road trip this weekend, saying the Checkers looked a bit flat.

“I think the captains need to step up and hold the room accountable,” he said.

“You’ve got to bear down and you’ve got to pay the price, and right now, we’re not doing that in any part of our game,” Vellucci added.

Charlotte’s power play has lost some of its edge in recent weeks, and the Checkers’ offense has cooled considerably since early in the season. Charlotte has scored only eight goals in its past six games.

The good news is the Checkers are still nine points ahead of the Atlantic Division’s second-place team, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. And after this road trip ends, Charlotte plays 14 of its final 21 games on home ice at Bojangles Coliseum.

One consistent has been the play of goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic, who leads the AHL in victories, with 22. His goals-allowed average ranks eighth of 47 AHL goalies, and he has been sharp in some of Charlotte’s biggest games this season.

In two weekend losses to Hershey, he allowed only four goals.

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

Tuesday: Aleksi Saarela, Josiah Didier and Morgan Geekie scored goals as Charlotte beat the Cleveland Monsters 3-1 at Bojangles Coliseum.

Wednesday: The Checkers trailed Cleveland 2-1 after two periods, but the Monsters scored two goals in a 29-second span of the third period and pulled away. The final was a 5-1 loss for Charlotte.

Saturday: Jake Bean’s goal put Charlotte up 2-1 at Hershey, but the Bears tied the game in the closing seconds, then won in a shootout after a scoreless overtime. In the shootout, each team’s first four skaters were stopped by the opposing goalies, but Hersey’s Nathan Walker converted in the Bears’ fifth try for the victory.

Sunday: Nicolas Roy scored for Charlotte, and the Checkers outshot Hershey 30-21. But the host Bears won 2-1.

Week ahead: The Checkers’ trip resumes with a three-games-in-three-days challenge next weekend. Charlotte plays Friday at Springfield, Saturday at Providence, and Sunday afternoon at Bridgeport Sound.

Steve Lyttle on Twitter: @slyttle

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