Zach Boychuk led the way with a goal and two assists as Charlotte followed up their dramatic overtime win at Raleigh’s PNC Arena on Sunday with a 4-3 victory over Norfolk to conclude their five-game home stand. Chris Terry, Michal Jordan and Sean Dolan also scored for the Checkers, who won their fourth straight game against the regional rival Admirals, all of which were played at Time Warner Cable Arena.
The Checkers now have an 8-4 lead over Norfolk in the race for the GEICO Challenge Cup, which is awarded to the team with the most points at the conclusion of the eight-game season series.
“I thought we had a really solid game. I really liked the way we played today,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “We didn’t give up a whole lot and it was a good win for us.”
The Checkers’ second straight win comes on the heels of a five-game winless streak that ended when the team stormed back from a 4-1 deficit after the first period of Sunday’s game against the Abbotsford Heat.
“We could have shut it down and quit a little bit but we stuck together and fought back (on Sunday),” said Boychuk, who tied his AHL career high with his 23rd goal of the season. “Hopefully we can take that onto a long road trip that we have.”
“To lose a few and now to get two back is huge,” said Dolan, who scored his first goal since last season’s playoffs. “Every game here is such a big deal.”
The only potential blemish on the game – and it could potentially be significant – was an injury to starting goaltender John Muse in the third period. In the midst of a strong performance in which he had stopped 27 of 28 shots, Muse was only able to put weight on one leg as he received help leaving the ice.
That proved to be a key moment in the game as the Checkers, firmly in control and leading 4-1 at the time of Muse’s injury with 12 minutes left in regulation, gave up the next two goals and were on their heels until the final buzzer. Mike Murphy made nine saves on 11 shots upon entering the game, with Norfolk’s Devante Smith-Pelly scoring both goals to complete his hat trick.
“I’m not really crazy about the goals against and it made things more interesting than it should have been,” said Daniels. “We kept fighting right until the end, they kept fighting right to the end and we came out on top.”
Asked if Muse’s injury had been the turning point in the game, Daniels agreed but declined a chance to elaborate.
“We’ll just leave it at that,” he said, adding that he did not have any further update on Muse’s condition.
“I don’t think anyone really knew what was going on, and that might have played a part in it,” said Dolan of the injury to Muse swinging the game in Norfolk’s favor. “We knew we had to hunker down in the defensive zone and we eventually got the job done.”
The Checkers had started the game with a 3-0 lead against Norfolk, the league’s top defensive team that had allowed just four total goals in its last four games. The first strike came from Terry, who has three goals in two outings since breaking a 13-game drought that tied the longest of his career, with Jordan and Boychuk, who passed Aaron Palushaj for the team’s scoring lead with 45 points in 43 games, following suit.
Terry’s goal, in which he finished a Palushaj pass from behind the net, came just nine seconds into the Checkers’ second power play of the night. After Jordan fired a shot past goalie Brad Thiessen on a crisp passing play involving Brett Sutter and Boychuk, Boychuk kept things going on one of the stranger goals of the year, a floater from the blue line that Thiessen apparently did not see based on his complete lack of reaction as it fell into the net.
“I’ve never seen one like that before,” said Boychuk, whose 13th power-play goal of the year gave him sole possession of the league lead and set a new franchise record for most in a single season. “I don’t think anyone knew where it was. The goalie didn’t. I kind of saw it go in and I was kind of surprised.
“I’ve had some crazy ones go in off my butt, off my head and off my leg, but that one was just a little floater that nobody saw. It was a lucky one.”
The goal was Boychuk’s eighth in his last 10 games, a stretch that includes two hat tricks.
“He’s always been a guy that if you give him the puck around the net there’s a good chance he’s going to score,” said Daniels. “Right now his came is a lot more consistent than in the past and it’s showing not only when he’s been here but up in Carolina they’ve been really happy with him. He’s been bringing it every day.”
Dolan, who replaced the injured Brody Sutter on a line with Terry and Justin Shugg, had hit a goal post prior to beating Thiessen for the eventual game-winning goal just prior to the five-minute mark of the third period. He also set up Terry for a breakaway chance late in the third as the Checkers peppered Thiessen, who bounced back after Boychuk’s soft goal, with several chances to put the game away before Norfolk got to within one.
Dolan, who had taken his usual spot on the fourth line since returning from a prolonged injury on Feb. 7, had found out he would be playing on his new line just prior to the game.
“It’s definitely a different game playing with Chris and Justin because they’re two very skilled players,” said Dolan. “It’s fun to get that opportunity and I’m glad we made the most of it.”
Daniels said that Brody Sutter, who took Tuesday’s morning skate as usual, was day-to-day and would be fine to play the team’s next game in Texas this Friday.
The upcoming two-game set against the Stars and the eight following it will be a tough test for the Checkers, who are now back to the .500 mark at 24-24-2 and six points out of a playoff spot with 26 left to play. Based on their last five periods of play, the hope is that their rollercoaster ride of a season is trending upwards once again, with the team ready to go on the kind of run that preceded their recent winless streak (eight wins in 10 games).
“We need it,” said Daniels of the team’s improved confidence. “We can build off the last two games knowing that the next 10 on the road.”