After Norfolk scored four unanswered tallies to negate the Checkers’ 3-0 lead in the second period, Charlotte got goals from Zach Boychuk and Matt Marquardt just 33 seconds apart to pull ahead for good in a wild 5-4 victory at Time Warner Cable Arena on Thursday. The win was the Checkers’ fourth in a row, extending their longest streak of the season and tying the franchise record for longest home winning streak.
Boychuk’s two goals, both of which came off excellent setups from Chris Terry, gave him 11 in his last 14 games. Nicolas Blanchard and Philippe Cornet also scored, while John Muse made 28 saves to tie a club record with his sixth consecutive victory.
Having won their previous three games with a goal with six minutes remaining, two goals in the final 70 seconds and an overtime goal, respectively, dramatic finishes are becoming the norm for a team that is finding its way following a dismal month of November.
The win put the Checkers within three points of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, with a the sudden increase in morale making any gap seem closer than it may have just a few short weeks ago.
“With that little streak in November where we lost seven in a row, I said before that we could easily win seven in a row,” said Boychuk, who scored his league-leading ninth power-play goal to tie the game. “We’re on our way there right now.”
The Checkers, who had allowed Norfolk to come back from a 2-0 deficit in a previous win over the Admirals on Sunday, got off to another good start with a first-period goal by Blanchard, who crashed the net along with Brody Sutter, and another in the second period by Boychuk. When Cornet put them up by three on a wraparound before the game was even half over, things were looking good.
However, before that second period could even end, the Admirals had tied it with three goals in less than four minutes – one by Max Friberg and two by Antoine Laganiere – all of which found daylight over Muse’s blocker.
“You don’t want to give up three in the second, but you have to give them credit. Those were two nice shots,” said Daniels. “It’s not like they were sloppy plays or bad goals. All three goals were crossbar and in. I’m not concerned.”
“Those were world-class shots,” said Marquardt. “You can’t say it has anything to do with John Muse or the way he’s playing. He’s played great ever since he’s come here and has really earned his spot on the team.”
Muse, who was playing his first game since replacing his tryout contract with an AHL deal that will keep him in the fold for the rest of the season, responded with a save of the year candidate while the Checkers were killing a four-minute high sticking penalty committed by Chris Terry in the third. On the only shot the team would give up during that advantage, Muse, sprawled on his stomach, managed to reach up with his glove and snag Rickard Rakell’s shot out of mid-air.
The play looked so certain to be a goal that most in the building thought it was just that until the video board showed a replay and the face off occurred in the Checkers’ zone rather than at center ice.
“It was kind of lucky,” said Muse. “One of their guys tried to wrap the puck around and I was out of the net expecting a shot from the point. Luckily I was able to dive over and he shot it right into my glove.”
Since joining the team from ECHL Fort Wayne on Oct. 24, Muse has been in net for each of the Checkers’ 10 victories.
“I’m pretty confident in myself and how I’m playing right now,” said Muse. “Every day is getting better and better.”
Any momentum from that kill, which also featured a shorthanded breakaway from A.J. Jenks that missed wide, was short-lived as Devante Smith-Pelly gave Norfolk a 4-3 lead on the next shift, setting the stage for the Checkers’ comeback. The tying goal came off the stick of Boychuk, who made this the eighth consecutive game that his team has scored at least one power-play goal.
“It feels good that they’re finally going in,” said Boychuk, who scored just two goals in the season’s first 13 games. “It’s contributing to some big wins for us to get back in the playoff picture.”
“Boychuk has proven over and over that he’s been able to capitalize when he gets the puck down there,” said Daniels.
The Checkers will now try to push their momentum even further as they continue a three-in-three set with games against the Toronto Marlies on Friday night and Saturday afternoon to conclude their 10-game home stand.
Given the nature of their recent wins, they’ll head into those match-ups with plenty of confidence as they try to further distances themselves from their losing streak.
“We’ve learned a tremendous amount of things from that experience, and we’re all better players and people because of it,” said Marquardt.
“You win some games and all of the sudden you’re feeling better, coming to the rink a little looser and the legs are feeling better,” said Daniels. “It’s a funny game that way, and right now the guys are feeling better and they should.”