CHARLOTTE — Never before had the Charlotte Checkers taken a two-game lead in a first round playoff series. A pair of goals from, of all people, Haydn Fleury ensured that 2018 would be the year that streak ended.
Fleury opened the scoring and hit the empty net, and Josiah Didier scored the game-winner as the Checkers topped the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins 4-1 on Saturday at Bojangles Coliseum, giving them a 2-0 lead in the best of five first round series in the Calder Cup playoffs.
As in Game 1, the Checkers were on their heels from the start, and this time the Penguins added a goal to the mix. On the game’s first shift, Joseph Cramarossa stuffed home a rebound just 22 seconds in after Alex Nedeljkovic was turned around making a save.
But just like Saturday, the Checkers slowly ramped up the pressure. With 6:13 to go in the first, Haydn Fleury tied the game, collecdting his own carom on a shot that went off the boards and stuffing the puck between Tristan Jarry’s skate and the left post.
And from there, the teams played stalemate hockey for the next 40-plus minutes. The Checkers’ best chance of the second came shorthanded when team SHG leader Warren Foegele had a breakaway from the blue line that was snuffed out by Jarry, and late in the period the Penguins really ramped up the pressure, nearly scoring with under a minute left and giving the Checkers plenty to think about in the locker room after two.
The Checkers had yet to earn a power play in the game until midway through the third, when Chris Summers took a run at Aleksi Saarela away from the play. Checkers trainer Bryn-Marc Conaway came out to take a look at Saarela who was shaken up, but he stayed in the game and came back out without missing a shift.
A second power play of the period nearly proved disastrous for the Checkers when the puck bounced to Jooris at the red line. He and Jarrett Burton took off on a two-on-one, and the former Hurricane set up Burton for a one-timer that beat Nedeljkovic but came clean off the left post.
Then, the comeback Checkers struck. Off a faceoff win, Nicolas Roy tapped the puck back to Josiah Didier at the right point. Didier wired a wrister through a perfect Julien Gauthier screen to beat Jarry at with 5:42 to go in the game.
But the Penguins got one more chance with 3:28 to go on the power play, with Andrew Miller in the box for hooking. The Checkers’ penalty killers came up huge, and got rewarded just as the penalty expired and only seconds after Jarry had vacated the net for the sixth attacker. Clark Bishop found the empty net to give the Checkers a 3-1 lead, Fleury hit the vacated net again with a minute left, and the Checkers will take a 2-0 series lead to Wilkes-Barre courtesy of their first-ever win in a playoff Game 2.
They Said It
We didn’t get going, didn’t have a chance in the first five minutes of the game. Once we got going and got our legs under us, we played well. It was one of those games that was back and forth. Not a lot of chances both ways, wasn’t a lot of penalties tonight.
They didn’t come out as hard and take runs at us like they did last night. It’s better for us. Obviously we would rather skate. The quick turnaround from last night is probably why the legs weren’t there.
We held serve, to use a tennis term, and now we need to go in there and get one, and we want to start with that on Thursday. The effort was there, the execution was there, it was a tight battle game right down to the end. Expect more close games like that.
[Fleury] didn’t score in the NHL and everyone’s been kidding him, but he comes down here and gets a couple goals. He can join the rush, he’s a great skater. He has offensive ability. I heard someone say the other day that he didn’t, but I believe he does and we encourage him to jump in the play and get involved.
[Did I believe what I saw - two goals?] They were pretty goals too.
[What’s different about the AHL as opposed to the NHL?] Younger guys, maybe some guys don’t have as much experience as guys up in the NHL, but everyone’s still good, everyone still makes plays. It’s just that these guys are almost ready to make the next step, where in the NHL everyone’s there and doing their thing. We have a lot of really talented players. It’s a fun team to be a part of.
[Nedeljkovic] was huge. Last night after that second one, a pretty bad bounce, but he rebounded well and was solid the rest of the game. They score on the first shift tonight and don’t get another one. It’s really helping all the defense.
They were having trouble getting in the zone, the forwards and the defense were doing a good job keeping things to the outside. That first goal was just a bad bounce and I lost track of it. Those things happen and from there we shut things down. My job was pretty easy. Whenever we get running around a little bit we try to kill the play, and the more I can help to slow things down and keep us all on the same page, the better.
Obviously we would have liked home ice advantage, but I think starting at home in the first two games is a little bit better in the first round. We had a good year at home, and it’s continued. It comes with the nature of being on your own schedule: sleeping in your own bed, making your own food, things like that. We still need to get it done on the road though.
We haven’t really played with a lead, except for the last five minutes. It’s always easier to play with a lead rather than trying to come back. But we have to keep playing the same way as if we’re down a goal, playing that desperate hockey.
- Nedeljkovic won’t get credit for a shutout, but that was pretty close to airtight defense from the Checkers in the final 59 minutes of the game. The two empty net goals skew the stats a bit, but that was pretty much the definition of playoff hockey, and it was a test the Checkers passed with flying colors.
- The AHL typically schedules doubleheaders during the regular season not only for the teams to save on travel costs, but also to save on the cost of officials. The same group of officials worked both games, but you’d never have known it from the penalty score sheet. This game was tighter checking yet more disciplined.
- Haydn Fleury’s 2017-18, NHL: 67 GP, 0 G, 8 A, 8 P, -2. Haydn Fleury’s 2017-18, AHL including playoffs: 5 GP, 3 G, 1 A, 4 P, +7. He’s a scoring dynamo at this level.
- The composure the Checkers showed was impressive in both games. Never did it look like they were chasing their tails despite trailing in both games. The AHL’s 2-3 first round gives a big advantage to the lower seed if they can win both games in their building, and now the Penguins have to beat the Checkers three straight times in their arena, where Charlotte won both matchups in the regular season.
- The Checkers get a couple of days off before they head to Wilkes-Barre on Thursday with a chance for a first-ever playoff series sweep on the line.