For the second straight game, officials disallowed an important goal late in the game, and for the second straight game, it didn’t matter as the Checkers scored twice in the game’s last two minutes to defeat the San Antonio Rampage by a 3-2 score. Keegan Lowe tied it with John Muse pulled for the extra attacker with 1:50 remaining before Chris Terry sealed it with just 7.3 left on the clock.
As part of a three-point night, Zach Boychuk also scored for Charlotte, which swept a two-game set with the Rampage at Time Warner Cable Arena and now has its first winning streak since starting 2-0-0 over two months ago.
“It’s a big, emotional win,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “To be down 2-1, tie the game up and then have it called back could have been a big letdown because of where we’re at as a team, but the guys were pretty excited on the bench, probably the most excited I’ve seen that bench all year.”
In the first meeting between the two teams, a 2-1 Checkers victory on Tuesday, the referee ruled that Boychuk’s would-be winner in the final five minutes did not count due to incidental contact on the goaltender. Later on the same power play, Justin Shugg scored the winner.
This time, it was a highlight-reel goal by Michal Jordan, who walked in from the point and finished from the slot, that did not count as referee J.M. McNulty ruled that Brett Sutter was in the crease.
“It was a tough call again, probably even tougher than the one other night, but to the credit of the guys in that locker room they stuck with it,” said Daniels, who said that McNulty “did not come near” the Checkers bench to offer an explanation. “I thought we earned that win.”
“Once the call is made, they’re not going back on it,” said Terry, who has nine points in his last seven games. “You have to move on. It’s unfortunate that we had to learn that last game, and we had to learn it again today.”
Just after Muse, who made 25 saves to earn his fourth consecutive win, had gotten to the bench, Lowe, a rookie defenseman, teed up a shot that had bounced off the end boards and right into his path as he pinched in to the left circle. The shot beat goalie Michael Houser, who the Rampage had recalled from the ECHL earlier in the day to make his third start in as many nights, on the short side.
It was the second professional goal for Lowe, making him something of an unlikely hero.
“Keegan is doing a lot of extra work right now shooting pucks before practice with Geordie (Kinnear, the Checkers’ assistant coach) and he’s getting a lot of shots through,” said Daniels. “That one, he probably just closed his eyes and stepped into it to see what happened. It’s a big goal for a young kid that’s going in the right direction.”
“That’s a big difference I’ve noticed here compared to junior,” said Lowe. “Guys are on you a little quicker and you have to really make them bite to get your shots through. That one was a little different out of the corner, but it’s been paying off I think.”
When San Antonio forward Garrett Wilson took a goalie interference penalty against Muse with 29 seconds remaining, the Checkers, who were converting power plays at a 35 percent clip over the last two weeks, could sense blood in the water. The decisive blow came when Terry, who has the primary assist on Lowe’s goal, scored on a one-timer from the point after a patient Aaron Palushaj found him open.
The Checkers finished the night 2-for-7 on the power play, while San Antonio went 2-for-3.
“We could have easily said, ‘OK, we tied it up, now let’s take it to overtime and get them there,’” said Lowe. “We wanted that win. It says a lot about the guys in the room.”
Even the early-game response was good, as the Rampage had scored just 2:04 into the first period at the tail end of a holding penalty to Palushaj at the 10-second mark. Less than two minutes later, Boychuk had tied it with his league-leading eighth power-play goal of the season on the Checkers’ first shot of the game.
“With the way that the game started out, it was obviously going to be a real intense game,” said Boychuk. “Their coach over there (Tom Rowe, who preceded Daniels as coach of the Carolina Hurricanes' AHL affiliate before moving on to become an NHL assistant) definitely had those guys going today. They were flying around and finishing every check. I don’t think I’ve been hit that much in a long time.”
There was also plenty of pushing and shoving after whistles, with trash talking even extending over the bench in some cases.
“There were times when Tom was actually yelling at me and I was yelling at him,” said Boychuk of Rowe, who he worked with in Carolina. “Just stuff that makes the game exciting and mean that much more.”
“That’s a heck of a good team over there,” said Terry. “They’ve got a coach that preaches hard work, and they played hard. I was just talking to (Brett Sutter) and we said it was almost like a playoff game with the way they hit, we hit and battling through things. It was just a lot of fun to be out there.”
The only damper on the evening came when rookie defenseman Danny Biega, who has become an important part of the team’s defense all season, suffered an injury prior to Jordan’s no-goal following a hard crash into the boards. After several moments of writhing on the ice in pain, he went to the locker room and did not return.
For a team already playing without blueline mainstay Rasmus Rissanen, who does not seem particularly close to a return, it was not a welcome sight.
“It might not look good, but I don’t know yet,” said Daniels of Biega.
Aside from that, there’s plenty for the Checkers to be upbeat about. After struggling to build on the momentum of seemingly big wins – they had alternated wins and losses over their last six games following a 2-9-0 month of November - they managed to get an even bigger one on Thursday.
“It goes without saying that we hadn’t won two in row in a while,” said Lowe. “We can’t just be content with getting a win and it’s in the back of everyone’s mind that we have to get some points together here, especially before Christmas to help us out in the long run.”
“They know they’ve got some work still to do, but I think that’s something we can build on for sure,” said Daniels.