That was the case again Saturday as the Rockford IceHogs prevailed by a 5-3 score at Time Warner Cable Arena, preventing the Checkers from winning two games in a row for the first time since the season’s first two games on Oct. 4 and 5. Brendan Woods, Mark Flood and A.J. Jenks scored goals, while Mike Murphy made 22 saves in his first game at any level since Oct. 20.
Charlotte has now alternated wins and losses over the course of its last five games, having picked up a 3-2 overtime victory over Rockford just two days earlier. While .500 hockey isn’t the end of the world and is certainly far better than the seven-game losing streak they endured last month, they’ll need more to get back in playoff position.
“It’s very frustrating,” said coach Jeff Daniels, whose team began the night in 13th place in the Western Conference, seven points out of the eighth and final postseason berth. “It’s easy to get back in the race if we get a couple going together because I don’t think the pack is that far ahead of us, but winning one and losing one is not going to be enough.”
Though Rockford’s fifth goal was an empty-netter, the Checkers’ defense had more glaring breakdowns than in many of its previous games. Brad Winchester’s power-play goal that gave the IceHogs a 2-1 lead early in the second period was a cross-ice tap in. Joakim Nordstrom’s subsequent goal came when the forward, who returned from the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks earlier the day, beat Flood on a one-on-one situation in front of the net. Rockford then scored its third consecutive goal, all in the second period, when Garret Ross desposited another open look.
“In the second period we had a couple of bad reads and got outmuscled on a puck and they’re in the back of the net,” said Daniels. “On the chances we had their goalie came up and made some big saves.”
In their three previous games, the Checkers had not allowed more than two goals.
“The third goal was directly my fault where my guy tapped it in in front, and that’s unacceptable and I’m not happy about it,” said Flood. “The other goals we had a couple of breakdowns and we’ve got to eliminate those from our game if we want to win.”
Though Murphy displayed some rust at times, something not entirely unexpected after his long layoff caused by a month backing up Justin Peters with Carolina in the NHL and an injury suffered upon his return to Charlotte, saving some of the goals that went against him would have required something truly special.
“On a couple of goals he didn’t have a chance on,” said Daniels. “He hasn’t played a lot of hockey. That was only his third game this year and he’s got to find that rhythm that he’s capable of getting.”
Down 4-1 at the time, the Checkers did seem to get some momentum through Flood’s goal with just 0.3 seconds remaining in the second period. With Rockford hoping to get one final clear out of the zone, the veteran defenseman intercepted the pass along the wall and fired it on net through a Rockford screen in front of goalie Kent Simpson.
Flood is now tied for second on the team in goals and is only three away from his AHL career high set with Manitoba during the 2010-11 season.
“I’ve been trying to put pucks on net and they’ve been going in here and there,” said Flood. “Our forwards have been doing a good job of screening in front.”
Charlotte then came out with a handful of good scoring chances, out-shooting Rockford 7-0 at one point, but was unable to make the breakthrough they needed to get back within one.
“We just couldn’t get any through their goalie,” said Woods of Simpson, who had 30 saves. “He was on top of his game.”
Woods’ third goal of the season to tie the game at 1-1 came on a great individual effort as he played the puck to himself along the wall in the neutral zone to beat a defender and found a small bit of daylight over Simpson’s right shoulder from a sharp angle as he skated in from the left wing.
The goals set off the Checkers’ annual Teddy Bear Toss promotion, with hundreds of stuffed animals, which the team will later donate to area children’s hospitals, raining down on the ice as he celebrated.
Jenks, who spent parts of the last two seasons with the Checkers but was playing with ECHL Florida until signing a professional tryout contract earlier in the week, got a consolation goal on a breakaway with nine seconds left, just six seconds after Rockford had iced the game with an empty-net goal by Klas Dahlbeck.
The Checkers are now off for two days before resuming their 10-game home stand against the San Antonio Rampage next week. They’re off to a 2-2-0 start to that segment, having won the first of two match-ups against Milwaukee and Rockford only to lose the subsequent rematch.