Say it ain’t so. The Charlotte Checkers’ 2016-17 season has come to an end after dropping a 3-2 decision to the Chicago Wolves in Game 5 of the Central Division semifinals. Charlotte had a 2-1 lead in the series before dropping the last two games.
The Checkers dug themselves into a hole early in the first period after 2016-17 AHL MVP Kenny Agostino scored less than two minutes in. Agostino ripped a shot from the left circle that rocketed past Checkers goalie Tom McCollum and into the back of the net. Andrew Agozzino potted the second goal of the game and his second of the playoffs on a rebound off McCollum that was not cleaned up by the Checkers defense.
Both of the goals scored in the first were power-play goals, the second and third given up by the Checkers in the playoffs. After killing 8 of 9 power plays in the first four games, the Checkers’ penalty kill reverted to regular-season form at the worst imaginable time.
Ulf Samuelsson opted to swap McCollum for goalie Michael Leighton after McCollum allowed the two goals on only four shots faced. Leighton had not played a game since February 17, when he suffered a lower-body injury that kept him out of action for the final two months of the season.
Early in the second, Adam Musil extended the Wolves’ lead with a shorthanded wrist shot from between the two circles that confused Leighton and made its way to the back of the net. The Checkers found life after the Musil goal, pressuring the Wolves in the offensive zone. Connor Brickley, who scored the Game 3 overtime winner, gave the Checkers a bit of momentum after firing a wrist shot from the left circle that beat Wolves goalie Ville Husso to the glove side. Husso stood his ground through the rest of the second period to keep the Wolves’ lead at two goals.
In the second period, goal-scoring revelation Aleksi Saarela left the game with what appeared to be a shoulder injury. He did not return, leaving the Checkers down to eleven forwards for the rest of the night.
The Checkers kept piling on the pressure into the third period. Tensions boiled over when Roland McKeown, who hadn’t been involved in a fight all year, went at it with Chicago’s Connor Bleackley five minutes into the period. For the fifth straight game, the Checkers couldn’t find the net on the power play, dropping to 0-for-10 in the playoffs on a night when special teams were instrumental in the outcome.
The Checkers finally broke through when Phil Di Giuseppe cut the Wolves lead to 3-2 with 6:34 to go. Despite pulling Leighton with around three minutes to go, the Checkers could not find the equalizer, outshooting the Wolves 34-19 but unable to beat Husso again, who made 32 saves and was named the first star. Chicago will be moving on to round two for the first time since the 2013-14 season.
The Checkers, meanwhile, will return home after a red-hot run into the playoffs that came to a premature end.