After taking a 3-1 lead early in the second period, the Checkers gave up six consecutive goals, including a hat trick by Roman Horak, on their way to an 8-5 loss in front of a sellout crowd at their annual Pink in the Rink game at Time Warner Cable Arena. It marked Charlotte’s third straight loss and ended a four-game winning streak at home that tied a franchise high.
Aaron Palushaj, Brody Sutter, Brett Sutter, Michal Jordan and Mark Flood scored for the Checkers, who got 31 saves from John Muse before their starting goaltender made an early exit in his second consecutive game played in favor of Mike Murphy. Charlotte showed signs of a rally with two goals in the final four minutes to get within two and had plenty of additional pressure beyond that, but an empty-netter eventually halted their hopes.
“It just seemed like they got a goal and we tightened up a little bit,” said Flood, who set a new franchise record for goals by a defenseman in a single season with 11. “They got another one and it kind of escalated from there. It’s frustrating because we were in the game. It’s a game we needed to win and we should have won but we let it slip away.”
“We stopped skating,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “We just couldn’t move our legs there for some odd reason. We were standing still, they came with three, four guys attacking and we couldn’t match their speed tonight.”
Things began to turn when the Barons scored twice in the last 10 minutes of the second period to tie the game and then tacked on two more goals in the first 1:13 of the third period to earn a lead they would not relinquish, even though the Checkers made the end somewhat interesting with goals by Jordan, who ended a 26-game goals drought, and Flood, who tied his AHL career high for goals in a single season, just over a minute apart with 2:23 left in regulation.
The game was the first since a four-game road trip for the Checkers that did not end until they arrived home at 9 p.m. Thursday night after a full day of travel from playing back-to-back games in Abbotsford, British Columbia, on Tuesday and Wednesday. Meanwhile, the Barons had been off since Tuesday and had actually arrived in Charlotte a full 24 hours ahead of the home team.
Did that factor in to Oklahoma City taking over in the second half?
“You’d have to ask them,” said Daniels of his players. “We had a tough week and a long week, but that was the schedule. We had to find a way to win tonight and we didn’t.”
“Definitely we were tired, but that’s no excuse,” said Flood, who finished with a team-high two points and plus-3 rating. “We’re professionals and we train for this kind of stuff. At the end of the day we lost the game and that’s all that matters.”
The team’s current three-game losing streak is their longest since a franchise-record, seven-game slide in November. After a run of positive results had seen them hit their goal of getting back to the .500 mark by the season’s midway point, Friday’s loss dropped them below it once again.
“We’re just not playing well right now,” said Daniels, referring to a stretch of games his team has played since defeating the Barons 9-3 in their previous home game on Jan. 24. “That’s five games in a row now where we haven’t been sharp. We’re not in a position to lose any more really. If you want to get in the playoffs you can’t lose two or three in a row.”
The game also marked the third time the team has given up seven or more goals in its last three games, with Abbotsford handing it a 7-1 loss on Tuesday. The eight goals allowed to Oklahoma City tied a franchise record set on two previous occasions, including once this season.
“It’s everything,” said Daniels. “It’s defensive play to stopping the puck to being smart with the puck. It’s a total team effort. We need to take more pride in the defensive zone right now.”
Muse, who had won 12 of his 14 previous games, has now given up 11 goals in his last two starts, neither of which ended in a complete game.
“He’s a winner, but he’s got to be better just like everyone else has got to better,” said Daniels.
“We just had some breakdowns,” said Flood. “It wasn’t our goalie’s fault at all. We hung him out to dry, both Muser and Murph. We’ve got to be more intense. It’s everybody. It’s not one single guy. It’s all of us that have to win battles. Myself, I’ve got to be better as does everybody else.”
Brody Sutter’s goal that preceded Brett’s made Friday the first time that both cousins had scored in the same game. Despite playing on arguably the Checkers’ most consistent offensive line for nearly two months alongside Palushaj and a trio of different left wingers, Brody’s goal ended a personal 23-game drought, with four of his last six goals coming against the Barons.
Though his celebration – an open-armed look to the heavens – suggested he may have been feeling the pressure, his postgame comments didn’t reflect that.
“I’m going to be a bottom-six forward that brings energy and finished my checks,” he said of his NHL potential. “If I chip in offensively, that’s great. Obviously, I’d like to score a little more but I feel like I’m playing well and developing. I hopefully can stay on this path.”
“He’s played extremely well,” said Daniels. “He’s had a lot of chances the last couple of games and he’s been snake-bit, but I like the fact that he’s shooting the puck more, he’s taking the puck to the net from the corners and driving the net. If you do that enough times eventually you’re going to score a goal.”
Scoring goals wasn’t necessarily the problem on this night, with the Checkers losing for just the third time in four AHL seasons despite scoring five goals. It’s something that had not happened since a 6-5 overtime loss to the Norfolk Admirals on the opening night of the 2011-12 season.
With that in mind, the Checkers, who are now 6-1-0 to start their 12-game series against the Barons, will hope to turn things around in match-up No. 8 on Sunday afternoon.
“I think we just got outworked the last half of the game, and when you get outworked for 30-plus minutes in this league, you’re not going to win many games,” said Sutter. “We’ll make sure we’re ready to go Sunday and rest and recover tomorrow.”