Sorry for the delay in doing so, but good news – we finally have the AHL TV package!
After a great start to the season, the Checkers have sputtered ever so slightly of late, dropping two of their last three games. They continued their early road-heavy schedule with three tough games this week. They would face their two playoff opponents from this past spring, visiting Lehigh Valley on Wednesday followed by back to back games at Wilkes Barre-Scranton for the weekend set.
Game One – Lehigh Valley
The Checkers started off their week with an entertaining, back-and-forth affair against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, the AHL affiliate of the Philadelphia Flyers. If you recall, the Phantoms are the team that knocked the Checkers out of the Calder Cup Playoffs this past spring thanks to a Herculean effort from Alex Lyon. He stopped an absurd 94 of 95 shots in a 5-overtime win that gave the Phantoms a commanding 3-1 series lead in the longest game in AHL history. Though not quite to the same level, Wednesday’s game was comparable in the sense that Carter Hart (one of the NHL’s top goaltending prospects) proved very tough to solve.
The Checkers’ powerplay started off the season ridiculously hot, and the unit has really felt the law of averages crashing down on them as they have been quite snake-bitten of late. They had three man-advantages in the first period alone, but could not convert on any of them. They were able to beat Hart just once on their sixteen shots in the frame. The Phantoms attempted to clear a puck, but Dennis Robertson trapped the zone and found Andrew Poturalski alone in from of the cage. He would make a quick move to the backhand and finish for a 1-0 lead. The Checkers would carry the play for the most part until about the midway point of the game, but Hart and the Phantoms would keep the deficit at one before beginning to fight back. Then, penalties to Valentin Zykov and Dan Renouf would prove costly, as the Phantoms would turn three powerplays of their own into two goals. Suddenly the special teams had turned the game on its head (sound familiar?).
The third period began with Lehigh Valley seemingly winning every battle and consistently outworking the Checkers. However, Alex Nedeljkovic would stand tall (with a little help from luck his defense on a few chances that nearly squeaked by him) and give the Checkers a chance, stopping a breakaway and getting a piece of a penalty shot attempt as well. Eventually Jake Bean, who we are going to talk about a good bit in this article, stole a puck at the blue line, protected the puck along the wall, probably should have drawn a penalty, then found Julien Gauthier at the left circle. The big man ripped it by Hart who seemed mildly surprised by the quick release, and the game was knotted up with just over five minutes to play. The Checkers would almost immediately thereafter earn a powerplay with a chance to steal the game in regulation, but it was once again unsuccessful.
The game would go to overtime, where the Phantoms would carry the play. They had all four shots in the 3-on-3 stanza. The fourth, by TJ Brennan on a 2-on-1, would beat Ned glove side to give the Phantoms the extra point. The Checkers had just had a great chance on their own 2-on-1 immediately preceding the goal, as Carrick hit McKegg with a stretch pass while Lehigh Valley was changing. He tried to get a little too cute, as he attempted to give a spin-o-rama backhand pass to Maenalanen that was broken up by the defenseman who sprung Brennan the other way. Nedeljkovic played a solid game, stopping 28 of 31 shots, a significant amount of which were of the high-danger variety. Hart would stop 35 of 37. Ultimately, the lack of finishing, bad special teams (0-6 on the powerplay, 2 powerplay goals against on 7 chances) and a handful of breakdowns would do Checkers in, but at least they fought back late to earn a point on the road.
Game 2 – Wilkes Barre-Scranton (WBS)
Two nights later, the Checkers headed to play the Baby Pens, who would be looking to exact a little revenge for Charlotte’s first round Best-of-5 sweep. The first period would be mostly controlled by the Checkers, but Tristan Jarry was fantastic. He only faced nine shots, but the Checkers easily could have been up two or three to nothing. The frame would end with the game still scoreless. Early in the second period, Carrick got caught on a bad pinch, springing a 2-on-1 the other way. Thomas DiPauli and Tobias Lindberg would hit each other back and forth with a couple nice touch passes as McKeown did a poor job taking away the passing lane, and DiPauli would punch it past Nedeljkovic for a 1-0 lead. However, Charlotte’s beleaguered powerplay (in the midst of an 0-16 stretch at this point) would soon after get a golden opportunity to even up the game with an extended 5-on-3. The unit would get pucks to the net quickly and frequently, but initially Jarry made three sparkling saves on Zykov and McKegg after some fantastic puck movement. The Checkers would give him no respite, though. Poturalski passed the puck to Carrick at the point, who quickly dished to Kuokkanen at the top of the opposite circle who sniped a one-timer high glove on Jarry. The Checkers would still have almost a minute and a half of PP time since they scored so quickly on the two-man advantage, but manufactured little else for the duration, save for a rush in which McKegg hit Zykov backdoor and nearly put the Checkers in front. Jarry had quite the stretch here, even with the goal allowed.
Later, Necas had a bad turnover where he was trying to do way too much in the neutral zone, as after he got around two guys the third easily stripped him of the puck the other way. The play ended in Valentin Zykov taking a penalty five-minute match penalty for cross-checking, meaning he was ejected from the game. It was behind the play and I never saw a replay, but obviously that’s not the kind of thing you like to see from a talented, top-six player. Zykov may have been frustrated for many reasons, be it Necas turning the puck over after trying to dangle everyone and not moving the puck, or the fact that Z had multiple great scoring chances in the game that he was unable to convert. Regardless, the Charlotte penalty kill would be tested, and proved up to the task in impression fashion. They came up with a huge five minute kill with multiple players contributing to a fantastic team effort. Maenalanen, Poturalski, McKegg, Nick Schilkey, and Nicolas Roy were rock solid up front, hounding the puck and staying in lanes. The defense came up big as well, led by Josiah Didier and Roland McKeown. Didier had a phenomenal diving shot block, but he would go to the dressing room afterwards and would not return, unfortunately. Incredible, selfless play by the AHL veteran. Even with all those fantastic contributions, however, Ned was easily the story of the kill. Any pro team is going to get SOME chances on a five-minute powerplay (well, most… I’ll let you make your own Canes-centric joke here) and WBS certainly did. Nedeljkovic stood VERY tall, including one ridiculous athletic sliding save on a rebound. The Pens had to have had 6 or 7 shots on the powerplay at least, and this huge kill had a great chance to be a massive momentum boost for the Checkers. Things would then get chippy in the last minute of the period with lots of post-whistle extracurriculars, but the score would not change.
The majority of the third period was pretty safe, close-checking hockey with each team clearly doing their best to avoid a costly mistake. Then, with just under six minutes left the Checkers took another penalty that was a little nerve-wracking at the time, but a PK that had been fantastic all night did it once again. With about twenty seconds left in the kill and zone time at a minimum for the Pens, the Checkers drew a penalty. The previously struggling powerplay once again came through. Trevor Carrick hit Andrew Poturalski, who walked down the right side of the zone and ripped a beautiful shot past Jarry’s glove, just under the bar. From this point on, the Checkers absolutely locked it down for the last 3:36 in which they led. The Pens could muster very little offensively, and took yet another penalty with 1:36 left. The Checkers basically didn’t give up possession after that point. WBS could never even pull Jarry to make it a 5-on-5. This was an impressive, hard-fought win for Charlotte and a fantastic outing for Nedeljkovic (27 saves on 28 shots).
Game 3 – Wilkes Barre-Scranton
The final game of the trip saw the Checkers face Anthony Peters (our old friend Justin’s younger brother) in search of a very strong 2-0-1 road trip. The game picked up where the previous night’s left off in some ways, with a fast pace and lots of physicality. However, unlike the previous close-checking boxing match, the play was much freer and filled with up-and-down action. Surprisingly to me, Alex Nedeljkovic got the nod over Callum Booth yet again. I questioned this in the previous Checkers look-in a while back, as goaltending fatigue is very real and it seems like Ned is getting each end of back-to-backs a lot more than one would expect. There is a reason that usually backups see a lot of action in these scenarios – – especially when that backup is a legitimate prospect. Nedeljkovic may have been fantastic Friday night, but unfortunately for him it didn’t carry over. The game started off with a bang, as Julien Gauthier did a nice job protecting the puck while making a power move to the middle. He probably could have drawn a penalty, but as he was going to the ice was able to slide the puck to Trevor Carrick anyway. Peters kicked Carrick’s point shot right back to Aleksi Saarela who finished blocker side.
The Checkers had jumped out to a 1-0 lead, but the rest of the period was a bit of an eyesore. Zack Stortini took an elbowing penalty almost immediately after the Saarela goal. Shortly after, Adam Johnson would take a wrister from the point. It was through a screen, but I think Nedeljkovic still had a good enough look to make a pretty simple save. The puck deflected off his blocker and in to knot the score. Then, just 53 seconds later, Ned would give up an even uglier goal. Stefan Elliot entered the zone with seemingly nowhere to go. About one stride into the zone and from off the side boards, he wristed a harmless dump/shot towards the cage that just flat beat Nedeljkovic short side, high glove. He may have been unable to pick it up because his defenseman was in his line of sight, but it was a pretty brutal goal regardless. Unfortunately, it happens to the best of them sometimes, but needless to say Ned was not off to the greatest of starts. Then, against the Checkers fourth line (Cliff Pu, Stortini, and Steven Lorentz) two clearing attempts were foiled and Jimmy Hayes was able to poke the puck out front to a wide-open Thomas DiPauli, who beat Nedeljkovic high to his blocker side. This was the only goal Ned really had no chance on, but the decision to bring in Callum Booth was made nonetheless. The Checkers seemed to get a little lift and try to get some momentum back to end the period, but it would end with the score still 3-1.
When the Pens came out and got a good bounce off a blocked shot and went up three goals to start the second, it looked like it was just not Charlotte’s night. However, there is a reason that they are atop the AHL standings. This is a very dangerous team, and with so much time left the game proved to be far from over despite the large deficit. First, just past the game’s halfway mark, Cliff Pu would register his first professional goal with a deflection on a Roland McKeown shot. Steven Lorentz did a great job getting in on the forecheck with lots of speed, winning possession and getting the puck low-to-high to McKeown at the point. The secondary assist was also the first AHL point for Lorentz. Then, after a great pad save by Callum Booth on a semi-breakaway/one-on-one, Dan Renouf chipped a puck up the boards to Kuokkanen. He would gain the offensive zone and slipped a nifty backhand pass just across the blue line to Necas, who had room right down the middle. He snapped a pretty shot far-side, above Peters’ pad but under his glove, to make it a one goal game with 6:36 left in the second. It was Necas’ second of the year, and he’s up to 8 points with Charlotte. He was very noticeable in this game in a positive way. It is good to see the youngster clearly starting to get more comfortable and create some offense, even while he’s making his share of mistakes along the way. With 43 seconds left Booth would make what Shaya called “the save of the year”, as he kicked out a left pad save straight to Jarrett Burton, who deked to his backhand and looked to have a mostly empty cage to reinstate the two-goal lead. But Booth, while sliding to his right, would reach back and absolutely rob him with the glove to keep it a one-goal game.
The first half of the third period saw the Checkers put consistent pressure on Peters. Finally, a Dan Renouf slapshot from the point would be the equalizer, and the Checkers had finished climbing the mountain with just over 9 minutes to play to go (Renouf’s first goal as a Checker, and an earlier fight and assist gave him a Gordie Howe hat trick in the game). Schilkey and Carrick had the helpers. They weren’t done yet. Tobias Lindberg would take a penalty right after the game was tied, and Greg McKegg made his former team pay. He would cleanly win the faceoff to Carrick (this would be his third assist of the night) who went D-to-D to Kuokkanen who was manning the other point. McKegg didn’t become a stationary bystander and instead got to the slot with his stick on the ice, and Kuokkanen would find him for a shot-pass. Peters came ever so close to stopping it, but the deflection trickled over the line. In 1:01 the Checkers had tied it, then taken the lead. Then, after McKegg nearly scored again to make it 6-4 with a nice toe drag and backhander on a 1-on-1 that Peters turned away with his blocker, the Pens tied it right back up with 4:17 remaining. WBS’ leading scorer Anthony Angello used his 6’5 frame to glove a rebound that bounced high in the air right in the crease, and was able to get his stick on it before it crossed the line past an outstretched Booth.
Poturalski and Maenalanen would combine for a pretty near-miss with the buzzer winding down, but regulation would ultimately end with the score still even. Necas would win the opening draw to start overtime, and in the 1:26 it took for the good guys to end this one, I don’t think the Pens possessed the puck once. Eventually, Andrew Poturalski entered the zone with speed, circled the cage, and found Saarela wide open in the high slot with a great pass. The young Finn made no mistake, blasting a one timer through a Renouf screen high to the blocker side of Peters. After opening the scoring in the first period, Saarela also finished it in the extra frame. Booth got the win with some really good relief work. Just like that, the Checkers had finished off a wild one and headed home happy, with five of six possible points earned on the road trip.
The Checkers now head back to Charlotte for a four-game homestand.