Checkers open AHL playoffs against Penguins

First-year coach Mike Vellucci leads Hurricanes’ top affiliate back to the postseason

Hurricanes forward Warren Foegele, center, celebrates his first NHL goal with defensemen Hayden Fleury (4) and Roland McKeown (55). All three are now playing with the Charlotte Checkers, who open their AHL Calder Cup Playoffs first-round series with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins at home on Friday. (James Guillory / USA TODAY Sports)

The 2017-18 season marked the fourth straight year the Charlotte Checkers had a new coach behind the bench.

Three seasons ago was the last of Jeff Daniels’ seven years guiding the Carolina Hurricanes’ American Hockey League affiliate. He was replaced by Mark Morris, who left after one year to take the job St. Lawrence University.

Former NHLer Ulf Samuelsson took over last year, leading the Checkers to the postseason for the first time since 2012-13. Samuelsson, however, then landed a job as an assistant to Joel Quenneville with the Chicago Blackhawks, again vacating the position.

Surely exasperated with the turnover, then-Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis chose Mike Vellucci, one of his assistant GMs in Raleigh, to take the reins of the Checkers.

The thinking was Vellucci could offer stability to Carolina’s top prospects while being an extension of the NHL club’s front office. Oh, and he knew a thing or two about winning as well.

Vellucci did his part, guiding the Checkers back to the postseason and a 46-win season — the most since the team moved to Charlotte in 2010 — and a date in the first round with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.

The best-of-five series opens with two games in Charlotte, Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m., followed by three straight games, as needed, in Wilkes-Barre on April 26, 28 and 29.

While Vellucci’s steady hand — he never missed the postseason guiding the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers — played an integral part in the Checkers’ success, there’s also plenty of talent in Carolina’s prospect pipeline.

Forward Valentin Zykov led the AHL in goals, scoring 33 times in 63 games, including a league-best 17 on the power play. First-year pro Warren Foegele finished eighth in scoring among rookies, and his 28 goals ranked second. He did that without the benefits of power play time, and he also finished with four shorthanded goals as a key penalty killer.

Lucas Wallmark again led the Checkers in scoring, finishing with 17 goals and 38 assists for 55 points despite playing just 45 games — his 1.22 points per game led the AHL among qualifying players.

Forwards Andrew Miller (52 points), Andrew Poturalski (49), Aleksi Saarela (43) and Janne Kuokkanen (40) all broke the 40-point mark, and Trevor Carrick led Charlotte defensemen in goals (11), assists (33) and points (44). Furthermore, defenseman Philip Samuelsson (Ulf’s son) led the AHL in plus/minus at plus-44 and partner Roland McKeown was third at plus-34.

Backstopping all that was Alex Nedeljkovic, who tied for the league lead in wins in going 31-12-3 despite having a .903 save percentage that tied for 35th in the AHL. His five shutouts were tied for third as well.

The Checkers were 3-1-0 against the Penguins this season, but finished three points behind them in the Atlantic Division, giving Wilkes-Barre/Scranton the home-ice advantage to start the series.