CHARLOTTE — The Charlotte Checkers have never lost in the first game of the Calder Cup Playoffs in their eight seasons in the league. Early in Friday’s Game 1, it looked like that streak would come to an end, but Lucas Wallmark made sure that it continued.
Wallmark’s goal 3:18 into overtime completed a comeback from a two-goal deficit and gave the Checkers a 1-0 series lead over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins with a 3-2 win at Bojangles Coliseum.
The physicality of the playoffs seemed to overwhelm the Checkers a bit to start the game, who had no shots in the first five minutes of the game and took a penalty less than a minute in. Once they got going, though, they poured on the pressure, taking advantage of a first period that featured six penalties - four to the Penguins - and a brief 5-on-3 that saw Tristan Jarry rob Andrew Poturalski with a quick glove save.
With just over two minutes to go in the first period, it was the Checkers’ shaky penalty kill that surrendered the opening goal. Andrey Pedan took a point shot that stayed low to the ice through a Garrett Wilson screen and beat Alex Nedeljkovic to give the Penguins the lead with Poturalski in the penalty box. A minute later, another Penguins penalty gave the Checkers hope, but it was quickly snuffed out by another huge Jarry save on Valentin Zykov.
Things settled down a bit in the second period, with the Checkers failing to convert on the power play that carried over, and the breakneck pace seemed to quiet down somewhat. But then, out of nowhere, a backbreaking goal by Daniel Sprong gave the Penguins a two-goal cushion. Daniel Sprong’s dump-in attempt from center ice bounced once about 20 feet in front of Nedeljkovic and fooled the goaltender, who gave up the howler that every goalie dreads to put his team down two.
All night, the Checkers were guilty of overpassing, often taking four and even five passes inside the Penguins zone and giving the defenders plenty of time to get in position. The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton defensemen certainly did their part, interrupting nearly every Charlotte zone entry by shoving the attacking players into the boards as soon as they crossed the blue line.
Finally, 6:32 into the third, the Checkers beat Jarry. Another overpassing exhibition by Nicolas Roy, passing up a one-on-one chance from 15 feet, allowed the Penguins to clear the zone, and on the ensuing rush the Checkers nearly did it again. But this time, Aleksi Saarela bailed them out, teeing up a one-timer from the slot on a rebound to pull the Checkers to within one.
The goal gave the Checkers their skating legs, and they nearly tied the game twice in the following minutes. Saarela missed a chance for his second in a goalmouth scramble that was somehow cleared away from danger by the Penguins, and Poturalski was sent flying through the air as he tried to knock a rebound in and was tripped, giving the Checkers their sixth power play of the game.
They cashed in 1:11 into the power play as three Checkers caught the Penguins way out of position and Valentin Zykov poked in a rebound to tie the game. Zykov was then immediately clocked by Chris Summers, who took exception to the AHL’s leading goal-scorer celebrating his tally in front of him and received a two minute penalty for his trouble. Garrett Wilson was also sent to an early shower, being issued a misconduct penalty for being the third man into the fracas.
Saarela was denied again by Jarry after the power play expired as former Penguin Greg McKegg circled behind the net and set up Saarela with a perfect pass, only for Jarry to do a split in getting across the crease to stuff him with his pad. The Penguins had a couple of good chances, including one that saw Roland McKeown clear the puck out of the crease as it lay there on a rebound, but couldn’t beat Nedeljkovic and the game headed to overtime.
The Checkers had the best chances of the early stages of overtime, with McKegg nearly scoring on the first shift and Lucas Wallmark forcing Jarry into an uncomfortable save two minutes later. And it was Wallmark who ended the affair, completing the comeback over the protests of the Penguins who felt Jarry was interfered with.
Brendon Kichton had snuck onto the ice while the puck was trapped along the boards, and his shot was tipped through a mass of humanity and into the net. Kostopoulos and Penguins coach Clark Donatelli were incensed, screaming at the officials as they slowly left the ice, but the Checkers won’t mind, taking a 1-0 series lead into tomorrow’s Game 2.
They Said It
Their goalie made a lot of big saves early. He was really stellar. But overall I thought we were a little tight early on and the inexperience showed a little bit. Once we relaxed, we played much better.
If you’ve watched us play all year, you know that we never give up, we’ve always fought back no matter what the score was and won a lot of games that way. The guys never give up, they compete and they stay positive. That was the key to me. Every game we talk about being positive, being a good teammate. Things may go bad, and how will you respond? We responded positively today.
I would say nerves, trying to do too much and make the perfect play. But we’re a skilled team and try to make that perfect play all the time. As a coach I hate to curb their offensive ability and their process, especially in a developmental league, but at this point in the playoffs, yeah, I think I want them to shoot a little more.
We knew [the Penguins] were going to come out and compete and battle and take runs at us, and for the most part we stayed calm and played between the whistles. In a five game series every game is very important. No matter whether we won or lost, it’s a big game tomorrow, so get the proper rest, make sure you eat right, do the little things, because every little thing adds up to a big thing.
A long shift there but good pressure, we had a lot of shots and good rotation there. I saw Kich got the puck along the blue line, so I just went to the net. It was a good shot and it was really fun to see the puck went in.
It’s always good to start with a win, especially here at home. We haven’t won anything yet. It’s a new game tomorrow, but of course it’s nice to score that one.
They don’t give us much ice there at the blue line. We tried to put more pucks behind the net and use that play a little bit more, and I think it worked for us. They did a good job at the beginning to hold us down and keep us to the outside, but we found a way.
I think we played a good game from the start, just didn’t get the puck in. But that was a huge comeback for us and showed a lot for us that we can come back from a 2-0 deficit. I thought we played pretty good.
They tried to play hard and that’s their way of playing. We don’t need to do that. We have skilled guys and we just have to respond with what they’re giving to us. I think that’s pretty simple.
We try to make the perfect play every time, and we talked about it in the locker room to play a more simple game and shoot the puck to the net and good things happen. It’s way easier when you get one in, and then it’s just trying to calm down and push forward. I think we did a pretty good job there.
- The Checkers certainly had the Penguins off their game for long stretches. Charlotte is by far the more offensively skilled side, but this being playoff hockey they didn’t have a lot of room to show that off. But as the game went on, the Checkers’ composure was noteworthy, and ended up leading to the goal that tied the game.
- Donatelli earned himself a misconduct penalty for screaming at the officials while gesturing to the scoreboard, imploring them to watch the replay and loudly protesting that Jarry was interfered with. It was honestly impossible to tell; there were five players at the top of the crease and good luck figuring out who was doing what.
- Spotted tonight: Hurricanes minority owner Peter Karmanos and team president Don Waddell, holding court with Vellucci and Checkers owner Michael Kahn after the game.
- Kichton jumping on the ice on a line change while the puck was trapped along the boards for 20 seconds or so just before the game-winner was one of those plays that no one talks about but has a gigantic impact. Everyone was gassed from a long shift, and Kichton with fresh legs took the puck, walked the blue line to open up Jarry and then fired into traffic hoping for the tip that Wallmark provided. It was a real heads-up play and one that won’t go unnoticed by the coaching staff.
- Nedeljkovic’s blunder on Sprong’s goal could have been a backbreaker, but for the Checkers to come back shows a good bit of resiliency on their part. Had that happened to the Hurricanes, you can imagine the shell shock that would have resulted. Perhaps that whole idea of letting a team learn how to win together isn’t such a wild idea after all.
- Back at it tomorrow at 6:00 as the Checkers look to go up 2-0 in their series.