The Charlotte Checkers are back in PNC Arena to play hockey again, but Saturday won't be as momentous a day.
Which has nothing to do with the Checkers or their AHL game against the Abbotsford Heat.
A year ago, the Checkers had a Jan. 6 game against the Norfolk Admirals in the arena. The NHL was caught up in the lockout, although there were signs of progress the day before the AHL game and hopes of a breakthrough on a new collective bargaining agreement.
Early the next morning came the long-awaited approval of the CBA. The NHL season would begin soon and a lot of happy fans came to PNC Arena to let out a sigh of relief, watch hockey and mentally gear up for what was to come. Excitement rippled through the arena.
"It was a pretty intense game and obviously a fun building to play in," Checkers coach Jeff Daniels said. "I thought it was a great game."
The Checkers, with defenseman Justin Faulk in the lineup, beat the Admirals 3-1 before a crowd of 10,256.
A year later, the NHL is in another stoppage -- the break for the Winter Olympics. Faulk is in Sochi, a member of Team USA, representing the Hurricanes. It's hard to say how many fans will be in the building for the game Saturday and again Sunday at 1:30 p.m. for a second game against the Heat.
But the games are important for the Checkers. They're coming off the AHL All-Star break, which came after an 0-3-1 stretch. And Canes management will be watching.
"This is where the guys want to get to," Daniels said. "This is something they're down in Charlotte working for, and they want to get up to Carolina at some point. And just a taste of playing in a big-league building. This is where they want to perform."
Zach Boychuk wants it. He's had a lot of "tastes" of the NHL and the Canes' former first-round pick wants to be a full-time NHL player, not an occasional callup.
Boychuk has been consistently productive for the Checkers this season with 22 goals and 18 assists in 40 games. The 5-11 forward also has been solid in nine games for the Canes with a goal, three assists and plus-2 rating.
The Canes believe Boychuk has shown more focus and determination in his play this season, with a tougher edge, and Boychuk doesn't disagree.
At 24, Boychuk knew this would be an important season in his career. Last year, he was waived three times -- by the Canes, Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators -- before being claimed by Carolina and sent back to Charlotte.
"It was kind of a tough season for me," Boychuk said. "I wanted to come back kind of refreshed and kind of start on a clean slate. I've got some games (with Carolina) and played pretty well and my season's going pretty well down in Charlotte as well, so I want to keep doing what I'm doing and hopefully I'll be back up in Carolina helping them make a playoff push."
Boychuk has 12 power-play goals and the Canes need help there. He said more grittier play around the net has gotten good results.
"I've changed a lot of my mindset during the game," he said. "I feel like I'm playing a lot more intense and that's one word I've really tried to focus on.
"In past years, I don't know what it was. I don't know if it was just me being young or me thinking it was going to be easy. But it hasn't come easy and I realize that and I'm just trying to be more intense in all different ways that I can play."
Daniels said he's noticed a difference in Boychuk, always a carefree, easy-going guy off the ice.
"Without a doubt, and it started last year after he went through a couple of different (NHL) teams and came back," Daniels said. "I'm sure it was a little bit of a wakeup call for him. He's got to be ready every day to prepare himself to play and push himself. He's been a real good player for us and his compete level is high.
"He's still the life of the team and keeps things loose when we need him. But at the same time, his focus has been a lot better and with that his game has been real solid."