Approximately 14 hours after leaving the ice from a 7-1 blowout loss at the hands of the Texas Stars, Charlotte returned the favor by way of a 6-1 win in a noon rematch at Time Warner Cable Arena. Aaron Palushaj led the way with two goals as the Checkers held the league’s best offensive team, one that had won each of its last four games, to one goal on 24 shots.
Justin Shugg, Zach Boychuk, Philippe Cornet and Victor Rask also scored for the Checkers, whose six goals were the most they had scored since an 8-2 win over Milwaukee on Feb. 16 of last season. Texas, their West Division rival, has lost only two of its last nine games, both at the hands of Charotte.
“We responded in the right way,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “Obviously last night was disappointing, but we couldn’t dwell on it because 12 o’clock was going to come early. Right from the get-go we were ready to play, got some big goals early to give us some life and just carried it throughout the game.”
With their season officially halfway over as they get set to conclude a three-in-three set against Norfolk Sunday evening, the Checkers sit at 18-19-1 with another chance to get back to the .500 mark for the first time since Nov. 7.
Saturday’s game was actually the second in a row in which the Checkers got off to a good start as they had led 14-6 in shots before allowing Texas to score three goals before the end of Friday’s first period. This time they made their opportunities count with three first-period goals of their own to chase goalie Cristopher Nilstorp from the game.
After Shugg got things going as he had time to line up his shot from the slot, Palushaj scored twice in just under three minutes, first splitting the defense to finish from a sharp angle and then on a highlight-reel, breakaway deke on an excellent home-run pass from Greg Nemisz.
With the goals, Palushaj has seven points (4g, 3a) over an active four-game point streak and 22 points (7g, 14a) in his last 15 games overall.
“I think (our line) is playing hard, we’re getting chances and I capitalized on a couple tonight,” said Palushaj, who lined up alongside Brody Sutter and Nemisz, the latter of whom returned from injury just in time to replace the injured Nicolas Blanchard on Friday. “We’ve just got to keep playing hard and keep going.”
“He’s feeling good about his game,” said Daniels of Palushaj, who extended his team scoring lead with 35 points in 38 games. “The biggest thing is he’s skating. He’s making plays, he’s finishing plays and he’s involved. He’s playing a simpler game and not trying to complicate things, taking what’s given and not forcing plays.”
Before the first period had ended, Curtis McKenzie made it 3-1 on the strangest goal against the Checkers this season, as his high flip from the neutral zone hit John Muse’s outstretched glove and fell into the net. It initially seemed as though that might be the spark needed to awake the sleeping Stars, who finished the first and started the second with more scoring chances than they had previously, but the Checkers kept control, dominating the rest of the game.
The goals kept coming in the second period when Boychuk caught speed coming down the left wing and handcuffed goalie Josh Robinson and when Cornet knocked home a rebound of Matthew Pistilli’s attempted stuff chance from the side of the net. The Checkers could have had even more goals if not for sharp saves by Robinson down the stretch.
“We could have easily had eight or nine,” said Boychuk, who took sole possession of the team lead with his 15th goal. “We had some breakaways and bunch of chances in the second in the third. It was nice to get a few and hopefully we can do the same tomorrow.”
Boychuk, who tied Palushaj with a team-high five shots on goal, had several of the Checkers’ best scoring chances, including two unsuccessful breakaway chances in the third period.
“I’ve got to work on those breakaways, I guess,” said Boychuk, who has scored many of his 96 career AHL goals in that manner. “(Daniels) told me that maybe next time I should just turn up and try to find somebody late or maybe just dump it in the corner. We’ll figure something out.”
Rask sealed the victory with 48 seconds remaining for his second goal in four games since ending a 24-game drought last week.
The Checkers now get a little over 24 hours off – a nice break compared to the one between games against Texas – before attempting to beat Norfolk for the third time in as many tries on home ice this season.
If they’ve learned anything from the last few days, it’s that their next game will bring a clean slate, though a little restored confidence won’t hurt.
“I think we’re just hitting our stride,” said Boychuk. “Obviously yesterday was a bit of a setback but we answered back with a huge win today. We want to get to that point where we’re in playoff contention and every game can mean something in the second half of the season.”