The Charlotte Checkers have had plenty of plaudits come their way this season: a 50-win season, a team record 110 points, the American Hockey League’s top goaltender, the league’s coach of the year.
Saturday night in suburban Chicago, they added a Calder Cup championship to that list, the crowning achievement to their outstanding year.
The Checkers won their first-ever AHL title with a 5-3 victory over the Chicago Wolves, taking the lead 91 seconds into the game on a goal by leading scorer and playoff MVP Andrew Poturalski and never looking back. Alex Nedeljkovic made 26 saves as the Checkers won their fourth straight game in the series, going 3-for-3 at Allstate Arena after splitting the first two games in Charlotte.
Morgan Geekie and Trevor Carrick also contributed goals for Charlotte, who followed up their 51-17-7-1 regular season with a 15-4 romp through the postseason. Brooks Macek and Gage Quinney scored for Chicago, the latter with the Wolves’ net empty, and when Wolves coach Rocky Thompson pulled goaltender Oscar Dansk again looking for a second goal to tie the game late, Poturalski hit the empty net for his second of the game.
Cody Glass scored with 38 seconds left to pull the Wolves back within one, but then Zach Nastasiuk scored into the vacated goal again with 16 seconds remaining to seal the championship. The win capped off a remarkable 49-0-0 record for the Checkers this season, including playoffs, when the team was leading after two periods.
No penalties were called on either team in the game.
It’s the first title for the Checkers since they won the 1994-95 championship of what was then called the East Coast Hockey League (now simply the ECHL), and the first for an affiliate of the Carolina Hurricanes since 1991, when the Springfield Indians won the Calder Cup. It is the seventh championship in Charlotte hockey history, as the team also won Eastern Hockey League titles in 1957, 1971 and 1972, plus the Southern Hockey League championships in 1975 and 1976. It’s also the second hockey championship in North Carolina this spring, joining the Carolina Thunderbirds who won the Federal Hockey League title.
The Checkers will host a public celebration at Bojangles’ Coliseum this Monday, June 10, at 7 p.m. Admission and parking are free for the event, which will feature a video presentation, remarks from team personnel, photo opportunities with the Calder Cup and an autograph session with Checkers players. Season ticket holders will have the opportunity to enter the coliseum at 6 p.m. before doors open to the general public at 6:30. Parking lots open at 5 p.m. and concession stands will be open.
Congratulations to captain Patrick Brown, coach Mike Vellucci, assistant coaches Ryan Warsofsky and Myles Fee, owner Michael Kahn, COO Tera Black, SVPs Derek Wilkinson and Shawn Lynch, media relations mavens Paul Branecky and Nick Niedzielski, and everyone associated with the Checkers on an outstanding season that few will ever forget.
Quotes (via Checkers PR)
Coach Mike Vellucci on the win
The guys wanted it really bad. They didn’t want to play any more games and have that week off. I was a little nervous that we wanted it too much, but we came out and played the right way and they played great too.
Vellucci on what the team will take away from this championship
Friendship. Friends for life. That’s what I told them already. You’re going to have friends for life. Championship guys stick together. Hockey wise, it’s a grind. We’re exhausted. Nobody wanted to play any more games. It’s June whatever it is. I don’t know if it’s a weekend or a weekday. I’m tired, the players are tired. They put everything into it. One of the things I think is the coolest and worried me a little bit is that we were the front dogs all year long. We were the front runners all year long That’s not easy to to, and I think a big testament was that we saw Tampa Bay go down in the first round (in the NHL) and we didn’t want to be having that problem.
Vellucci on the team’s mentality this season
Win. We wanted to win. We accept no losing. We want to get better as players obviously but we want to win. There’s the skill part of it, but developing winners is something that organizationally we needed. Medocrity is no longer tolerated in our organization.
Vellucci on his team
To be honest with you, I love every one of these guys. It’s easy to say that, it really is and everybody says it, but I mean it. It was very emotional. There’s so many guys that have gotten better. It was very special.
Vellucci on Andrew Poturalski
Every period he’s got both feet in a bucket with a broken foot. A special kid. An unsung hero and I don’t think he gets the accolades that he deserves. I can’t say enough about him. He’s a special kid and we have a great relationship off the ice. I’m very happy for him – he deserves it.
Alex Nedeljkovic on winning three in a row in Chicago
We had no intention of going back home and going to practice on Monday or Tuesday, whatever it would have been. We took it game by game, and we couldn’t win tonight without that first game on Wednesday. Every game was like our last.
Nedeljkovic on how he feels after the grind of a long season
I feel fantastic. Every day fantastic just to come to the rink and play a game that you grow up just loving and enjoying when it’s just a game but now it’s your career. Every day it’s just fun. I don’t work a day in my life right now.
Andrew Poturalski on winning a championship
It’s just unbelievable. Being here for three years and building this culture and having fun, we just expect to win and we went out and did it. I couldn’t be more proud of the guys in the room.
Poturalski on winning
We just kept finding a way to win. When new guys come in and they see that and see that we do whatever it takes to win, it’s pretty contagious. Everyone just buys in. We love each other in that room and it’s fun.
Poturalski on playing through injury for most of the playoffs
I feel unbelievable right now but it’s definitely been a grind. Everyone has bumps and bruises and I’m no different. You’ve just got to battle through and the guys next to you and that’s what playoff hockey is all about.
Poturalski on the championship
To get the first championship in Checkers history and do it for (team owner) Michael Kahn and the city of Charlotte and all the guys in the room, we truly deserved it. We worked our asses off for that all year. To get that win is definitely something we’ll all remember for the rest of our lives.