Charlotte owns home-ice advantage but the Oklahoma City Barons will be favored in a first-round, best-of-five Western Conference AHL series.
The primary reason? Experience in goal.
The Barons have Yann Danis, last year’s AHL Goaltender of the Year. The 32-year-old veteran with 148 career AHL wins has gone 10-3-3 with a 1.77 goals against average and .931 saves percentage since he returned from Edmonton six weeks ago.
The Checkers’ top two goalies — Justin Peters and Dan Ellis — are in the NHL with Carolina. Peters might return but the club might not want to expose him to waivers.
Charlotte might be forced to ride Rob Madore, who spent most of the year in Double-A. But Madore has played well since a late-season call-up, going 5-3-2 with a 1.83 GAA and .951 saves percentage.
The primary reason the Barons are favored is they’ve been the league’s hottest team, going 13-3-3 since March 10th. The Barons have outshot 14 of their last 15 opponents.
“Now is the time to get hot,” said center Mark Arcobello. “We’re peaking. It’s a great sign. We just want to keep it going. It won’t be easy. You have to take it one game at a time. But we’ll have a good shot if we play the way we’ve been playing.”
The key to the series could be which team wins the special teams battle. In the 30-team AHL Charlotte ranks third in penalty killing (86.5 percent) and fifth in power play production (20.2 percent), the top combination in the league.
But stats can be deceiving. Oklahoma City has the No. 1 power play unit (21.6 percent) but hasn’t been as productive since Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Justin Schultz returned to Edmonton after the NHL lockout.
The Barons are 30th, dead last, in penalty killing but has been the league’s best unit as of late, killing 43 of the last 44 penalties the past xx games, a 97.7 percent clip.
“Our (good) penalty kill and (improved) defensive play has to continue,” Nelson said. “All the things we’ve been doing down the stretch we have to stay consistent in the playoffs. If we do that we’ll have an opportunity to win. But it should be a good series.”
The Checkers have home-ice advantage but the Barons are 8-1-2 on the road the past six weeks. And Oklahoma City won three of four in Charlotte.
Still, it puts pressure on the lower seeded team if it doesn’t sweep the first two games at home with Games 3, 4 and 5 on the road.
“Obviously we want to be in the drivers’ seat and win the first two at home,” Nelson said. “But we feel pretty comfortable on the road. Down the stretch we had some success on the road. That’s comforting. We feel it doesn’t matter where we play.”
You can’t put much stock in eight regular season meetings. The Barons won four of six when Eberle, Hall and Schultz were in OKC.
Charlotte swept two games Jan. 11-12 at the Cox Convention Center but Danis wasn’t with the Barons at that time. Plus, it was the week after the NHL lockout ended when the Barons were undergoing a roster makeover.
“We haven’t seen each other in quite a while,” Nelson said. “One thing we do know is Charlotte is a hard-working team that plays a good system and is good on special teams. But we have such different looks.”
Because they’ve been on the bubble the past month, the Barons have been in a playoff mindset the past four weeks.
“That helps,” Nelson said. “But it should be a good series. We have a lot of similarities. Both teams play their system well. Special teams will be the key… But we feel good about it based on our play as of late.
“But the thing about is the playoffs are a clean slate. We just have to be consistent and play the way we’ve been playing.”
Head to head stats: The two teams split eight regular season meetings, each team winning three games on the road.
Philippe Cornet scored eight points for OKC in seven games against Charlotte. Arcobello, who finished third in the league, scored six points. Jonathan Cheechoo, signed mid-season, scored five points in five games. Toni Rajala scored five points in eight games.
Charlotte’s leading scorer, left winger Chris Terry, has 60 points for the season and scored eight points in eight games against the Barons. Zac Dalpe scored six points in four games.