Just because the Canes aren't in the postseason doesn't mean there's no playoff hockey in the Old North State.
In their first season in the American Hockey League, the Charlotte Checkers are deadlocked at two games apiece with the two-time defending Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears in their first-round playoff matchup. Zac Dalpe and Zach Boychuk, as they did most of the regular season, have powered the Checkers' offensive attack, with a combined ten points in the first four games of the series. Drayson Bowman, who had every intention of playing in the playoffs in a different league, has three points including an assist on Nick Dodge's game-winner Wednesday night.
Who's missing? Jacob Micflikier, for one, who had a breakthrough regular season but hasn't scored yet in the postseason, tallying two assists in the first four games and only one in the two games the teams have played in Charlotte. Oskar Osala shook off a slow start with a goal on Wednesday, his first point of the series. Meanwhile, the Bears are led by former Cane Keith Aucoin, who has matched Boychuk with six points in the series.
Jeff Daniels returned to Mike Murphy in game four, and Murphy rewarded the Checkers to tie the series with his first win since returning from a concussion in game three on Tuesday. Murphy is expected to be in the net again tonight, facing Braden Holtby, who Canes fans might remember from action with the Washington Capitals this season.
A win tonight will mean that the Checkers have two chances to close out the series in Hershey, with game six Sunday and game seven, if necessary, Monday. With plenty of support both from Charlotte and a big contingent expected from Raleigh, they'll have the crowd firmly on their side.
2:30 1st: Not the greatest start for the Checkers. The Bears currently have a 3-0 shot advantage, and the Checkers look a bit discombobulated in their own zone.
3:06 1st: Bears take a 1-0 lead; Pinozzoto 2 (Kane) The bad start burns the Checkers as they give up a goal three minutes in. Steve Pinozzoto was untouched in the slot and Boyd Kane found him with a sweet pass through two Checkers defenders. Murphy had no chance to get across and make the save.
7:30 1st: Best chance of the night so far goes to Brad Herauf, who was stoned by Holtby just outside the crease with a perfect poke check just as Herauf tried to shovel the puck into the net. Since the Bears goal, the Checkers have played better, but it's not hard to improve on the rather uninspired start the home team began with.
14:12 1st: Starting to get a bit chippy behind the Hershey net, with an offside by the Checkers leading to some pushing and shoving. Jacob Micflikier has left the ice with a reported injury, leaving the Checkers with 11 forwards.
End 1st: Nothing doing for the Checkers even though they did come on late. Micflikier returned late in the period, and Chris Terry just barely missed a tip-in with ten seconds left, but the Checkers are were held off the scoreboard. Shots in the first were 14-11 Hershey, but the Checkers calmed down and played well after giving up the first goal.
1:49 2nd: Bears lead 2-0; Perreault 3 (Willsie, Greentree) Ten seconds earlier, Holtby stoned Casey Borer on a backdoor play with a stretching kick save that sent Kyle Greentree back on a rush the other way. Brian WIllsie took a shot from the top of the near circle that Murphy kicked out - right to Mathieu Perreault, who had a wide open net to bury the Bears' second of the night. That's a frustrating sequence right there.
4:24 2nd: Now the Checkers are playing like a frustrated team, and Nicolas Blanchard took out a good bit of that frustration on Boyd Kane just inside the Charlotte blue line, earning a charging penalty that had Kane down on the ice for about a minute. Kane stayed on the Hershey bench but was in obvious pain.
12:57 2nd: Bears up 3-0; Carroll 1 (Perreault, McNeill) For as well as Murphy played in the first period to keep the Checkers in it, his rebound control (or lack thereof) has led directly to both Bears goals this period. This time, it was Andrew Carroll's turn to clean up the trash, dangling the puck just outside Murphy's left skate and shoveling it home to give the Bears a 3-goal lead.
17:14 2nd: Checkers on the board, down 3-1; Sutter 1 (Dalpe, Boychuk) Sometimes, you need a fluke goal to get yourself back into the game. It wasn't a textbook goal for Brett Sutter, but he'll take it. A routine dump-in behind the net took a weird bounce off the boards and never made it to Holtby, and Sutter came flying in from the blue line to tap the puck home. Holtby actually got back to make most of the save, but it pinballed around off his pads and into the net. Doesn't matter...the Checkers will gladly take it.
End 2nd: The Checkers will begin the third period with 1:30 remaining of a power play that nearly connected at the end of the second. Justin Faulk fired a bullet from the left point that was kicked out and was in a great position for Chris Terry to clean up the rebound, but it caught Terry on the backhand and he double-clutched, never getting a good shot off. If the Checkers can cash in on the power play to start the third, look out.
1:00 3rd: Checkers cut the deficit to 3-2; Bowman 2 (Rodney, Faulk) (pp) Look out, indeed. Drayson Bowman sniped a beautiful shot from the top of the near circle to beat Holtby clean through some traffic in front of the net. Gorgeous goal, and one the Checkers desperately needed. They're playing with a ton of confidence now. By the way, the assist is Justin Faulk's first professional point.
5:48 3rd: Checkers tie it! Osala 2 (Sutter) Heck of a breakaway goal by former Bear Oskar Osala knots the game at 3. On a breakaway thanks to a well-timed line change, Osala's initial shot was mostly saved by Holtby but the puck squeezed out to give Osala a chance to knock home his own rebound. He didn't miss, going just around Holtby's left skate in a play reminiscent of Carroll's second-period marker.
9:23 3rd: The Checkers have been really tilting the ice to the Bears' end all period, and Holtby has been under siege almost continuously. Despite that, he's made some big saves, including a Bellemore point shot that found its way clean through about four bodies in front and yet still resulted in what looked like a routine glove save.
11:24 3rd: Checkers lead 4-3! Dodge 3 (Osala, Bowman) The Checkers have scored four unanswered goals to take their first lead of the night, and when it's going your way it's really going your way. Oskar Osala centered to no one in particular from behind the net, and Nick Dodge was Johnny on the spot to knock it home off his body and into the net. The Bears protested loudly at the scorer's bench, apparently thinking Dodge kicked it in, but to no avail.
15:30 3rd: Two straight penalties gave the Bears a 5-on-3 for :53, but they were done in by their sticks. Two sticks broke on point shots in the first twenty seconds of the two-man advantage, giving the Checkers a chance to regroup and they ended up killing off both penalties.
19:00 3rd: Empty netter seals it; Bowman 2 (Osala) (en) And that'll do it. Checkers take a 3-2 series lead back to Hershey with Game 6 on Sunday.