Zach Boychuk’s league-leading 10th power play goal made the game interesting with just under seven minutes remaining in regulation, but the Checkers weren’t able to capitalize on a number of subsequent chances as they fell by a 3-1 score to the Toronto Marlies on Friday. The result snapped the Checkers’ season-long winning streak at four games.
Mike Murphy made 35 saves for the Checkers, who conclude a three-in-three set that began with Thursday’s win over Norfolk with a rematch against the Marlies at noon on Saturday.
Having scored two goals less than a minute apart in a pair of recent third-period comebacks, the Checkers were boosted by Boychuk’s goal, in which he turned a defender inside-out at the blue line and fired a shot that just barely trickled through goalie Christopher Gibson and into the net. That marked Boychuk’s fifth goal during an active four-game streak and his 12th goal over his last 15 games.
That goal came on the first half of a double-minor for high sticking that Marlies defenseman T.J. Brennan committed against Philippe Cornet, leaving the Checkers plenty of room to work with. Even after they were unable to capitalize on the second half of that power play, they put together a late flurry that included a point-blank chance by Brett Sutter and another effort by Boychuk that rang off the goalpost.
Toronto had started the third period with a 14-0 shots advantage, keeping the Checkers off the board entirely until the halfway point, but the Checkers ended up taking 10 of the next 13 to end the game.
“I felt like we were really going to push and try to get that next one,” said Boychuk. “Their goalie played great tonight, and we just weren’t able to find the back of the net enough times.”
“I don’t think we gave up,” said Sutter. “We still had that will to win and were trying to throw everything at the net. Their goalie stood on his head all night.”
Gibson, a rookie playing in just his third career AHL game as the Marlies rested workhorse Drew MacIntyre for Saturday, finished with 32 saves.
“We had some looks and had some chances but their goalie played really well and made some good saves for them,” said Daniels of Gibson, originally a second-round draft pick by the Los Angeles Kings in 2011. “They’re a strong team, they’re physical and they don’t give up a whole lot, and I thought it was a pretty even game.”
Even was the best way to describe the game through most of two periods, with the teams playing to a scoreless tie despite three power-play chances each, including a five-on-three for each team in the first. However, the Marlies broke the game open with two goals just 43 seconds apart near the end of the middle frame, with Tyler Biggs picking a corner behind Murphy from the right circle and Spencer Abbot capitalizing on a giveaway in the slot.
Murphy would also allow a third-period goal on another giveaway, making a tough initial save before Brad Ross scored on the rebound, but handled himself well for someone playing just his fifth game of the season and seventh in the last 12 months.
“I thought he gave us a chance,” said Daniels. “In the second period he made some saves and the second (goal against) he might want back, but I thought overall for a guy that hasn’t played a lot, he gave us a chance to win.”
Other than the isolated breakdowns that ended up costing them, the Checkers could also look back at their earlier misses chances on the power play in the first period. In a penalty-filled first that only featured 10 minutes of even-strength play, the Checkers got approximately one and a half minutes of five-on-three time when Kevin Marshall and Brad Staubitz went for holding the stick and boarding, respectively.
“You’ve got to look back at those chances that we had,” said Boychuk. “You want to score big goals at big times and we weren’t able to do that. It’s nice to get that one at the end to keep our power play clicking, but it’s all about the timing.”
The Checkers now have at least one power-play goal in each of their last nine games, tying a franchise record. On the flip side, they were perfect on the penalty kill, including Toronto’s two-man advantage, and did not have to pay for two separate penalties for too many men on the ice.
In trying to pick up their first win in four tries against the Marlies on Saturday, the Checkers, who have played a lot of three-in-three sets over the years, will face a little bit of uncharted territory. It’s rare that the third game would start so soon after the second, as they’ll have just a few hours to recover against a Toronto team that will only be playing for the second time in as many nights.
“They’re not easy, that’s for sure,” said Boychuk. “Any three-in-three, that (third) game is really tough. It’s a tough set of games, especially against some really good teams, and with that game coming early it’s good because we can get right back at it early and show them what we’re made of.”
“It’s going to be different, but this is a really big game for us,” said Sutter, whose team entered the night just three points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference. “Five of the last six games (before a five-day holiday break) would be huge for us and put us right back in the mix of things.”