John Muse made 31 saves for his fifth career AHL shutout and third this season as the Checkers began a two-game set with the Oklahoma City Barons with a Thursday victory at Time Warner Cable Arena. Justin Shugg had two goals and Greg Nemisz and Brett Sutter had the others as Charlotte extended its win streak to three games and improved to 5-0-0 against their West Division rival this season.
With six wins in their last seven games, the Checkers are now 20-19-1 and above .500 for the first time since early November. They’ve also climbed to 10th place in the Western Conference and ended the night just a single point out of a playoff spot.
“We’ve been playing as a unit and we’ve been prolific as a unit,” said Shugg, who set a new career high with his 10th and 11th goals of the season. “We’re just sticking to our systems and there’s a lot of communication out there and a lot of confidence.”
That second period stretch could have been the turning point in the game as the Barons came out flying after a first that saw them out-scored 2-0 and out-shot 18-6 by the home team. That was when Muse had to be at his best, standing tall during a flurry of chances by a team that has proven to be resilient in previous meetings, including last season’s playoffs.
Like Muse’s earlier shutouts – 5-0 wins in Grand Rapids and Chicago on Oct. 25 and 27, respectively – he had to be much better than the final score suggests.
“I liked the way we started and I liked the third, but the second period’s got to be better,” said Daniels. “Muser made the saves he had to make and we took our foot off the gas and relaxed and kind of watched him do the work. No one else was skating.”
“I wasn’t too busy throughout the game because we did a good job defensively and limiting chances, but I was able to see all the shots,” said Muse.
Since initially rejoining Charlotte, where he played parts of the last two seasons, on a tryout contract in the season’s first month, Muse has emerged as a legitimate No. 1 option in the AHL.
“He’s a proven winner throughout his college career, won the championship in the East Coast and has proven he can win at this level,” said Daniels. “Last year was kind of an off year for him but he’s bounced back this year. He’s always really focused and ready to play.”
“Obviously you want to play at the highest level and I’m still not there right now and know I can improve, and that’s what I work on in practice every day,” said Muse. “It feels good to be back here but there’s still a lot of work to do.”
The Checkers got on the board with two goals just 1:31 apart just past the midway point of the first period, with Nemisz left all alone in the slot to one-time an Aaron Palushaj pass past goalie Richard Bachman. The goal gave Nemisz points in all five games he’s played as a Checkers since the Carolina Hurricanes acquired him from Calgary (2g, 4a).
Shugg then scored while carrying the puck up the right wing on a two-on-one break with Philippe Cornet, looking pass before sneaking a shot through Bachman’s legs that hit the inside of the netminder’s right pad before trickling just over the line.
That fast start, together with a dominant third period in their last game against Norfolk, gave the Checkers a cumulative 41-14 shots advantage over their last two periods of regulation play.
Turning the tide of the momentum after the Barons came out flying in the second period was the Checkers’ second shorthanded goal of the season by Sutter, who scored on a great setup by Chris Terry. From there it was all Charlotte to finish the game, with Shugg notching his second career two-goal game – both of which took place this season – by backhanding a loose puck into the net with 1:39 to play in the second.
The Checkers went on to control the third period, though Barons backup goalie Chet Pickard, who came in to spell Bachman ahead of Friday’s rematch, stopped all eight shots he faced.
“I felt like they were the better team for the first 15 minutes of the second, but then obviously the short-handed goal and Shuggy’s goal gave us a little more energy,” said Daniels.
On a team that has seen a handful of different players take turns as big contributors on offense in recent weeks, this game was Shugg’s turn. According to Daniels, it was well deserved.
“I’ve said all along that Shuggy has been one of our most consistent forwards right from training camp with the way he’s playing with and without the puck,” said Daniels. “His effort, he’s moving a lot better, and he’s probably in the best shape of his career. Night in and night out he’s getting chances and right now they’re going in for him.”
“I came off to a slow start but the ball’s been rolling for me and the puck’s been bouncing my way,” said Shugg, who started the season in the AHL for the first time in his three professional campaigns. “I’m just trying to work hard to get those chances.”
The Checkers now head into a Friday night rematch with the Barons hoping to continue their success against a team they still play seven more times this season.
“Three of the five have been one-goal games, so it’s been a lot closer than it might look,” said Daniels, whose team now leads the Barons by three points in the standings. “We’re both in the same situation, we’re both trying to get in to a playoff spot and we knew that coming in.”
“It’s two clubs battling hard and we’ve had more bounces go our way than they have,” said Shugg. “They’re going to be a different hockey club tomorrow night so we’re just going to have to come with the great pace we had tonight.”