CHARLOTTE — The first Calder Cup Finals game in Charlotte Checkers franchise history certainly did not lack for excitement.
Stefan Matteau scored the game-winning goal 4:30 into overtime, his second of the game, as the Chicago Wolves took a 1-0 lead in the American Hockey League’s championship series over the Charlotte Checkers, a fitting if disappointing end to a back-and-forth game that had a record crowd of 8,465 at Bojangles’ Coliseum - a crowd that included Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon and AHL president Dave Andrews - in equal parts tense and joyous.
The Checkers wasted no time getting things rolling. An early hooking penalty against the Wolves’ Keegan Kolesar gave the Checkers a power play less than a minute in, and Trevor Carrick made the Wolves pay with a point shot that changed direction in front of Chicago goalie Oscar Dansk off one of his defensemen. Five minutes in, the Checkers were outshooting the Wolves 8-1, and everything looked to be firing on all cylinders.
Until it wasn’t. Out of nowhere, on their third shot of the night, the Wolves tied it. Stefan Matteau’s point shot fluttered into the near circle and was bunted down by a Checkers defender past Alex Nedeljkovic, giving the Wolves a goal against the run of play.
And once they scored, Chicago suddenly caught fire. Nedeljkovic was called on time and again, stopping a flurry of Wolves shots. At one point the Wolves had taken ten straight shots against the Checkers, and they looked every bit the part of a team ready to quiet the nearly sold out crowd and steal a win on the road.
The Checkers, though, never broke in front of Nedeljkovic, and once they got their skates back under them Trevor Carrick let loose a bomb from the left point that changed direction again and beat Dansk with 4:13 to go in the first. Then, the Checkers doubled their lead as Andrew Poturalski took a lead pass from Morgan Geekie on his way out of the penalty box and fired a shot through Dansk’s pads to make it 3-1.
As if the crowd wasn’t entertained enough, the first period ended with a line brawl in front of the door to the Wolves’ locker room, highlighted by Clark Bishop bodyslamming a Wolf to the ice and Jake Bean, of all people, uncorking a pair of right-handed haymakers.
The Checkers started the second on a power play out of the fracas, but got nothing going. Chicago again turned up the heat, and got rewarded when another point shot, this one by Zac Harvey, pulled them back to within one with eight minutes left.
Then, things went from bad to worse for the Checkers, who paid dearly for their lackadaisical play in the middle stanza. Yet another point shot, this one from T.J. Tynan at the top of the slot, beat Nedeljkovic high with all sorts of traffic in the crease preventing him from seeing the shot. With just five seconds remaining in the period, the Wolves had tied it, and the Checkers were back on their heels.
While they didn’t score in the first five minutes of the third, they certainly looked more sprightly than they had at any point during the preceding twenty. Poturalski nearly had his second but Carrick’s point shot three minutes in went square off the shaft of Poturalski’s stick and out of the zone. At the other end, Nedeljkovic robbed Tomas Hyka on a breakaway, and a few minutes later Martin Necas put on a show with a backhand off a spin-o-rama in the slot but Dansk as up to the task to deny Necas what would have been a highlight-reel goal.
Tye McGinn, younger brother of the Hurricanes’ Brock, almost put the Wolves on top 7:20 into the third after stealing the puck at the blue line and skating in on Nedeljkovic, but despite McGinn’s efforts to outwait the Checkers’ netminder Nedeljkovic stayed with him and kept the score tied.
A late-period Wolves offensive shift kept the Checkers’ top line of Morgan Geekie, Steven Lorentz and Poturalski on the ice for more than three minutes, yet they never allowed the Wolves to take the lead. Geekie in particular was completely out of gas by the time he came off the ice, barely able to stand up as he skated off at the end of the shift - which, naturally, ended with a 2-on-1 from the Checkers that everyone in the building thought would end in a goal, but Haydn Fleury’s shot was deflected away by Dansk.
A late-period Checkers power play went begging despite a pair of great chances that Dansk snuffed out, none better than robbing Patrick Brown twice on the doorstep with 1:51 to go in regulation. For the second time in as many games, the Checkers would require overtime to decide things.
Fleury took a needless cross-checking penalty 2:14 into overtime, shoving Tynan to the ice behind the Checkers net. The Wolves got a couple of great chances, but Nedeljkovic and the Charlotte penalty killers were up to the task to keep the game going.
But they couldn’t stop Matteau from ending it 5:30 into the extra session, walking out from along the boards and surprising Nedeljkovic with a quick shot that beat the goalie through his legs and put the Checkers down 1-0 in the series with Game 2 Sunday night in Charlotte.
They Said It
I thought they had a good second period, they had a good pushback, and they scored three goals from the point. A couple of them got through with, I don’t want to say luck, but that’s what they’re trying to do, that’s what we try to do, and they got three good goals from the point.
I think there were no surprises for us, and I’m sure there were no surprises for them. That one line was on for three of their goals for, their top line played a ton - 27, 28 minutes. They’re a real good line, and they’re a real good team. Matteau scored two goals for them and he’s on their third line. They got scoring from everybody
We’re in the Finals. This isn’t the end of the world. We lost one game, and it was overtime to a very good team. This is the finals of the league, and there’s only two teams standing. You have to pick your head up and move onto tomorrow. The crowd was great, they were into it. I thought maybe we were a little nervous at the beginning, but it was awesome. This is a learning experience for these guys. We have the youngest team in the league, and it’s a great learning experience learning how to play in a final.
They were in there for over two minutes and they didn’t get a scoring chance. Obviously we did pretty good, and then we had the 2-on-1 with Fleury the other way. After a two minute shift he has enough energy to go down the other way. It was great. I always say bend but don’t break, keep them to the outside, and like I said they didn’t get a chance. In the third period we outshot them 17-7. We had the puck most of the time other than that time in our end.
It’s hard. It’s hard to play hockey. It’s hard to play in June. It’s hard to win games against big, older team. It’s hard to get pucks out at the blue line. It’s hard to box out. Your body’s sore, you’re tired, it’s been a long two months. Just got to find a way, and I’m really proud of the way they competed to this point. But it’s only one game right now, for sure.
We’ve rebounded every time. Our goaltender, our D, our forwards, we’ve rebounded when we had a loss. I don’t expect anything different. Is it going to be easy, no, but I expect us to rebound.
They’re the only [two teams] playing right now. It’s great. The more they can play, the more they can get the experience in a tough environment. 8500 for us, sellout, that’s the loudest it’s been all year. It’s just great to get that exposure, that experience. That two minute shift is a prime example. 3-3 game, two minutes in your end, doing whatever it takes to block a shot, get a stick on it, doing whatever it takes. That, to me, is a great learning experience.
I thought we played a pretty solid game. Obviously it hurts to give up a lead like that, but we’ve been in this position before. Forget about it, and we’ll respond tomorrow.
You have to keep skating the whole game. Play in their end, on their D, get on them, get on them, get on them. You can’t take your foot off the gas in the playoffs like this. They have a veteran team, a pretty good top line. You can’t give them opportunities.
They’re playing us for the first time too. That’s kind of what it is. We have to outplay them every single night. Tonight, call it a couple bounces if you want, but we had the lead and we gave it back to them. We have to have our foot on the gas.
It’s great. We’ll come in tomorrow, play a little soccer, forget about it and do some video. Feel good and get ready for the game tomorrow. No one ever likes to lose, but we had a whole bunch of guys saying positive things right as we got in there. Forget about it. We’ve been in this spot before, and we’re going to respond tomorrow.
Going up 3-1 in the first period, we had all the momentum and we just slowly let it slip away. It’s not the way we wanted it to go, but stuff happens in the playoffs. It’s not going to be easy at this level. We have to bounce back tomorrow and clean the little things up, and I think we’ll be ready to go.
You have to win four games to win the series. One game’s not the end. We started out the same way the last series, lost to Toronto in game 1. We know what to do. We’re going to stick to our game plan, clean a couple things up and we’ll be ready to go tomorrow.
They were trying to get shots from the point. We have to get in lanes and do a better job there, and not turn the puck over. They got all their chances from our turnovers. If we play our game, I think we’ll be ready to go. You want to get traffic to the net and make it hard for their goalie, and make his life difficult.
They’re a veteran group over there. They know what they’re doing, and they’re here for a reason. They’re a good team. Got to give them credit for that. We just want to stick to our game plan, clean those little things up and we’ll be ready to go.