Facing elimination, the Oklahoma City Barons scored on the game’s first shift and never stopped piling on the goals on their way to a runaway 8-1 win over Charlotte on Friday. The final score line marked the most lopsided loss in the Checkers’ AHL history, regular season or playoffs.
The division rivals, who split their eight-game, regular-season series before exchanging victories in the postseason, are now set to meet one final time in a winner-take-all conclusion of their best-of-five series on Saturday at Time Warner Cable Arena.
“Whether you lose 8-1 or 2-1, you’re going to Game 5,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “The score doesn't matter tonight, because it’s a new day tomorrow and a new game, and the winner moves on.”
"We knew they were a good team and they weren't going to go away easily," said forward Zach Boychuk, who scored the Checkers' lone goal to extend his point streak to seven games (6g, 4a). "They really took it to us right from the start, and we were chasing from the first shift. It's not what we wanted, and the beauty of it is that we'll be right back at it tomorrow for Game 5, winner takes all."
With their backs against the wall for the second time in this series – once when the Checkers took an early 2-0 lead in Game 2 at Oklahoma City and again after Charlotte’s 6-1 victory on Wednesday – the Barons once again turned in one of their finer performances.
Philippe Cornet got things going when Mark Acrobello found him completely alone in front of the crease, at which time he put a deke on goalie Rob Madore to score his first of the playoffs. Tyler Pitlick then scored on a long shot from the top of the right circle to make it 2-0, with Chris VandeVelde adding a third off a centering feed from Ben Eager.
It was the start of a tough night for Madore, the rookie netminder who gave way to backup Mike Murphy upon allowing a fourth goal off a three-on-one rush during an Oklahoma City power play early in period three. Madore made 13 saves on 17 shots, while Murphy stopped 16 of 20.
“It was a tough night for everyone,” said Daniels. “(Madore) was one player on a team that didn’t get the job done.”
Despite the early disadvantage, Charlotte had its share of chances to get back in the game. Chris Terry, who had two goals in Game 4, had the puck all alone in front of goal for a pair of chances in the opening frame, with Riley Nash hitting the post on another.
“After the first period the score looked ugly, but it could have easily been even,” said Checkers captain Brett Sutter.
When Barons captain Josh Green scored that fourth goal – the result of Charlotte’s penalty killers being overly aggressive with plenty of time still left in the game – the scaled tipped completely toward Oklahoma City, who out-shot the Checkers by a 17-3 margin in period two, scoring three more goals.
Boychuk’s goal, in which rookie defensemen Ryan Murphy found him alone in front of Barons goalie Yann Danis in a play similar to Terry’s first chance in the first period, made the score 6-1 early in the third. While it gave the Checkers energy not previously seen during the game, it ended up being short-lived with Oklahoma City scoring two more times just 40 seconds apart in the following minutes.
Since Charlotte’s overtime win in Game 1, each of the next three games in the series were decided by three or more goals, with Friday’s marking the widest margin of victory seen in the AHL playoffs this season – a distinction that previously resided with Charlotte’s Game 4 triumph. It was also the fourth time in the 12 total games between the teams this season that one team won by four or more goals. Each team has won two of those, suggesting that they usually end up even at the end of the day, despite the wild ride along the way.
It’s only fitting that the never-ending deadlock will extend to one final meeting, in which a winner will finally emerge.
“You’ve got to be excited about it,” said Sutter. “We knew they were a good team and it was going to be a long series.”
“I think if you told us we’d have one game for a chance to move on, we’d take it,” said Boychuk. “It’s going to be a dogfight right to the end.”