By Cliff Mehrtens
The Charlotte Observer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Ryan Cuthbert, Charlotte Checkers’ captain and sparkplug, had missed a month with a concussion.
In the first game back, last week against Greenville, he slammed an opponent into the boards on the first shift.
“I wanted to get out and let them know I was ready to go right away,” said Cuthbert, who turned 23 Sunday. “I just caught him at the right time.”
Charlotte is catching a healthy Cuthbert at the right time. He’ll be full speed in Game 1 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Columbia in the best-of-five ECHL first-round playoff series.
Game 2 will be 7:30 p.m. on Friday night in Columbia, with Game 3 at 7 p.m. Saturday at Cricket Arena.
Cuthbert isn’t the fastest skater, or flashiest scorer. At 5-foot-10, he doesn’t tower over anyone.
He leads. By exertion. By speaking up when necessary. By not backing down.
“I’ve always been an energy guy,” said Cuthbert, a New York Rangers prospect and native of Swift Current, Saskatchewan. “Give it everything I have every shift. As a captain, I think that’s what you have to do, work as hard as anybody else.”
In 43 regular-season games, he had seven goals and 27 assists. He also spent a month with Hartford of the American Hockey League.
The Checkers (39-26-7) were 5-6-2 when Cuthbert — “Cutter” to teammates — was hurt.
“He brings a ton of passion and energy every day,” Charlotte coach Derek Wilkinson said. “From his perspective, that’s how he leads. He doesn’t give anybody a reason to say `Well, he’s not working hard, so I don’t have to.’ “
“From a playing standpoint, he’s got great speed and hockey knowledge. He’s tough, and he’s developed a scoring knack. You want your captain to be a guy that will accept any challenge in any role. He takes it on head-first.”
Cuthbert was captain of all his junior teams, including the Kelowna Rockets who in 2003 won the Memorial Cup, Canadian junior hockey’s championship.
When Mike Harder, 31, left for Europe in midseason, Cuthbert eased into the captain’s role without a hitch.
“I love it,” he said. “It feels real natural to me. I’m not afraid to speak up when I have to. It’s something that’s always been a part of my game.”
Cuthbert’s assessment of the series against East Division champion Columbia (38-22-12) — 5-5 in the regular season — isn’t surprising.
“We have to try to outwork them, they’re one of the hardest-working teams in the league,” he said. “We have to match or beat their work ethic.”
The Checkers are in the postseason after a two-year absence.
“Playoffs are the best time of the season,” Cuthbert said. “The hockey gets that much better because every game is huge. It’s just a lot of fun