After a tremendous March run to make the playoffs and a hard-fought 5-game series against the Chicago Wolves, the Charolotte Checkers 2016-17 came to an end on Wednesday night with a 3-2 loss.
Charlotte Checkers vs. Chicago Wolves game 5 recap
Tied at two games apiece, the Checkers headed into their winner take all game five with the Chicago Wolves on Wednesday night (Apr. 27). Right off the bat things went wrong for the Checkers, as they took an early penalty for an incorrect starting lineup. Someone on the Checkers staff accidentally wrote in the an incorrect player on the starting score card instead of Phil Di Giuseppe, and that mistake resulted in a minor penalty. The Wolves would make no mistake; AHL MVP Kenny Agostino would capitalize for Chicago on the power play to make it 1-0. A little over two minutes later things would get worse for Charlotte as they would take another penalty, and the Wolves would capitalize again on the power play, stretching their lead to 2-0.
After Chicago scored their second goal, Ulf Samuelsson called a timeout and made a goalie change less than five minutes into the game, taking out Tom McCollum for Michael Leighton. That goalie change and the timeout seemed to light a fire under the Checkers because they would control the play/flow of the game from that point on. Goaltender Ville Husso played spectacular for the Wolves in the first, keeping the constant Charlotte offense at bay and preserving Chicago’s 2-0 lead. The second period would see more of the same consistent pressure from a Checkers team doing anything it could to cut into the two-goal lead. Unfortunately, things would get worse before they got better as Lucas Wallmark would make a neutral zone turnover on a Checkers power play, that would lead to the Wolves scoring their third goal of the game. Just over a minute later Connor Brickley would breathe life into the Charlotte offense, ripping a shot in the top right corner of the net, but the period would end with Chicago still leading 3-1. The second period would also see Aleksi Saarela leave the game after a collision in front of the Wolves net. Saarela would leave the ice bent over and holding his right arm/shoulder, he would not return for the rest of the contest.
The third period would see the Checker in full on desperation mode, doing anything they could to prolong their season to the next round. Still goaltender Ville Husso stood tall in net for the Wolves, making some incredibly timely saves to preserve the lead and by doing so maybe played his best game of the series. The Checkers were not out of hope yet though as Phil Di Giuseppe would pot his first goal of the series with just under seven minutes left in the period to cut the lead to one. That would be as close as the Checkers would get though as Ville Husso snatched and saved whatever remaining chance Charlotte had of tying the game, and the Wolves would win both the game and the series 3-2.
Charlotte Checkers vs. Chicago Wolves series summary
The series started off with games one and two being played in Charlotte, and those might have been the best two games the Checkers played in the series. Game one was a complete domination by the Checkers. The home team from the Queen City only allowed the high-flying Wolves offense 20 shots on goal and shut them out on the scoreboard. Brendan Woods would score the game-winning goal for Charlotte, and the Checkers would take game one by a score of 4-0.
Game two was more of a high action, high impact game that went constantly up and down the ice with both team’s getting plenty of chances on net throughout the whole game. Even though the Checkers would end controlling the puck more and registering more shots, they would end up losing the game 3-2 after allowing a goal ahead goal with just over five minutes left in the third period.
For game three both teams headed to Chicago to play the first game of the series in the Wolves’ barn. In four games during the regular season, the Checkers did not win a single game at Chicago, so winning any game there during the playoffs was going to be a big task for Charlotte. Game three started exactly the way the Checkers would have hoped as they scored twice in the first period and held a 2-0 lead going into the first intermission. The Wolves would come right back though at the start of the second, quickly netting two goals and tying the game up before the end of the period. Both teams scored early into the third period to tie the game at three, but neither team could find the go-head goal before the buzzer sounded so, the game three would head to overtime. Fittingly for the Checkers, the man who lead the team in game-winning goals during the regular season showed up once again to win the game for the Checkers in overtime. Connor Brickley picked up a rebound in front of the net to give the Checkers the victory and the 2-1 series lead, putting them a game away from moving onto the next round.
Unfortunately, that is as close as the Checker would get to moving on. In game four the Wolves would dominate Charlotte in almost every aspect of the game, and the won by a sizable margin of 5-1.
Game five saw the Checkers fall into an early deficit and even though they ended up outplaying Chicago in the game, the hole they put themselves in was too much to overcome and they would lose the game and the series 3-2.
Hurricanes Prospects Who Stepped Up Down the Stretch
The Checkers had to overcome a large deficit in the standings to just make it into the playoffs and they could not have done it without players stepping up and making key contributions down the stretch. Haydn Fleury developed into maybe the Checkers best defenseman in the second half of the season. He displayed a tremendous skating ability with the puck, being able to go coast to coast and get his own shot when the Checkers needed some offense. He finished the season with 7 goals and 19 assists, while also leading the team in +/- as a +16. Lucas Wallmark exceeded expectations people had for him this season and he was crucial down the stretch down for the Checkers. He did a terrific job of always being active on offense and he became more of a goal scorer as the season progressed, as opposed to the playmaking style from the beginning of the season. He ended the year holding the Checkers rookie record for goals scored in a season with 24, and he also added 21 assists to place him at third all-time in Checkers franchise history for points scored by a rookie. in his third year with the Checkers, Phil Di Giuseppe took on more of a leadership role down the stretch. He displayed the ability to take over the game at times, being able to create multiple scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates. Most of the time he looked to be on a whole other level compared to most of the players in the AHL, and I think the confidence he gained during the second half of the year and into the postseason will pay dividends to his overall development as an NHL player.
Giving Credit Where it is Due
In addition to the young stars, a significant amount of credit needs to be given to the team’s veterans. The Checkers would absolutely have not made it into the postseason if it was not for fantastic offensive output that Andrew Miller provided during the second half of the season in addition to the strong goaltending Tom McCollum down the stretch. In his last 38 games played Miller tallied an outstanding 35 points, and he was the Checkers go to guy whenever they needed a spark of offense or the team was not playing well. In the 17 games McCollum started for Charlotte at the end of the regular season he went 11-2-4 and put up a .926 save percentage which is way more than the Checkers could have hoped for when they got him on loan at the AHL trade deadline for next to nothing.
Despite the first-round playoff loss, the season represented a positive step forward for a Checkers team that had not made the playoffs since 2011 and also for a Hurricanes’ organization that will benefit from the positive boost.
In the weeks ahead, I will break down the Charlotte Checkers’ 2016-17 season in more detail and take a close look at the Hurricanes prospects who were part of it.