Five different Checkers scored goals and John Muse made 35 saves as Charlotte picked up a 5-2 win over the Lake Erie Monsters in their first game at Time Warner Cable Arena since Feb. 18. Combined with a strong finish to their stretch of 10 consecutive road games completed earlier in the week, Charlotte has won three in a row and seven of its last eight to continue its push up the Western Conference standings.
Sean Dolan, Chris Terry, Danny Biega, Brett Sutter and Aaron Palushaj provided the goals for Charlotte, which improved to 2-1-0 in its season series with Lake Erie that concludes Sunday afternoon. Through Saturday’s games, the Checkers, who have 15 games remaining, stay in 10th place, trailing eighth-place Rockford by four points with two games in hand.
Coming home may have been something of an adjustment for the Checkers, who hit the .500 mark at Time Warner Cable Arena (15-15-1) for the first time all season. Though they had taken a 2-0 first-period lead on goals by Dolan, who won a race to the net and fired home a pass from Zach Boychuk, and Terry, who scored on a low shot just six seconds into what set up as a long five-on-three power play, Lake Erie gave them all they could handle to tie the game in the second. The final shots on goal total of 37-26 was just as lopsided as the final score, though it was in favor of the opposite team.
“We didn’t have a lot of legs in the first 40 minutes,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “I don’t know if that was because we were on the road for a long time, but we just couldn’t find a way to get going.”
Lake Erie could have easily taken its first lead of the game late in the period when the Monsters were on the power play for most of the last five minutes. The Checkers finished the game a perfect eight-for-eight on the penalty kill with plenty of help Muse, who has now won each of his last five starts.
“He was really good tonight,” said Terry of Muse, who has won 18 of his last 24 decisions. “He kept us in the game when we needed him. He’s been playing stellar, he’s our rock back there and we need him to continue to do that for us as we continue to make our playoff push.”
The game’s momentum swung from the drop of the puck in the third period, when Biega fired a long shot that handcuffed goalie Calvin Pickard and took a high bounce into the net after just 48 seconds. Two minutes after that, it was Sutter’s turn as the Checkers captain took one shot that was blocked only to put his own rebound home when Pickard missed a chance to cover it with his glove.
Palushaj put it out of reach by the midway point of the period when he fell as he was attempting his shot, causing a high floater of sorts that Pickard misjudged. After handing the Checkers their first shutout of the season on Jan. 31, the Lake Erie goaltender allowed five goals in each of the next two match-ups.
“When things are going your way, sometimes you get some bounces,” said Sutter, whose assist on Terry’s goal gave him sole possession of third on the Checkers’ all-time points list, passing Zac Dalpe. “This time of year it’s about finding wins. It doesn’t have to be pretty.”
What changed between the second and third periods?
“We talked about the importance of winning the game and not letting it slip by,” said Daniels. “I thought we responded the right way.”
The Checkers’ top four scorers, all of whom have been producing near, at or above a point-per-game pace for the last month, came through yet again with Palushaj, Sutter and Terry each chipping in a goal and an assist and Boychuk picking up two helpers. Boychuk and Terry could have added to their totals if not for missed breakaways in the third period.
“They’ve been going and they need to be going for us to have a chance to get into the playoffs,” said Daniels of that group. “They have a lot of pride and they’ve been taking this team on their backs and carrying us, and other guys are following their lead.”
Charlotte now faces a quick turnaround to Sunday’s 1:30 start, though it’s something they’re quite used to by now.
“It’s probably four times it’s happened for us, but I think winning the game will definitely help going into tomorrow because all of the sudden you’re not as tired hopefully and you feel a little better, as opposed to losing this game and dragging coming to the rink tomorrow," said Daniels.
“After three-in-three on the road in three cities, I don’t think there’s too much that can faze us,” said Sutter.