The Checkers erased a trio of deficits within mere minutes to stay even with the Barons and eventually prevail by a 5-4 score, giving them their second shootout victory in less than 24 hours against one of their chief competitors for remaining playoff spots in the Western Conference. In relief of Mike Murphy, John Muse stopped all 27 shots he faced in regulation and overtime and four of five in the shootout, with Victor Rask, Chris Terry, Zach Boychuk and Jared Staal finding the back of the net for the home team.
With seven games remaining on their schedule, the Checkers used their fourth straight win to move from eighth to seventh in the postseason race, though Rockford knocked them back down to eighth with a win in Chicago later in the evening. The net result of the day's games is that the Checkers have a four-point cushion over the ninth-place Barons, who they play twice more on the road next weekend.
“The last few games against these guys have really meant a lot,” said Boychuk, whose goal and assist allowed him to break his previous career high and set a new franchise record with 67 points on the season. “They’ve been really good battles, and to get two points this weekend is huge.”
“Our main goal right now is to get wins, regardless of how we do it, whether it’s overtime, shootout or regulation,” said Muse, who won his 43rd game as a Checker to tie Murphy’s all-time record. “As long as we take care of ourselves and get wins, I think we’ll be good.”
This particular win was certainly unconventional, with all the goals scored coming in quick bunches.
When Taylor Fedun opened the scoring 3:33 into the first period, Rask answered back with a bullet of a wrist shot that beat goalie Richard Bachman and marked the rookie center’s third straight game with a goal. When Ben Eager made it 2-1 on a rocket of his own from the slot early in the second, Terry answered back with a centering feed from behind the net that went off Bachman and into the net. When the Barons’ Steve Pinizzotto and Will Acton scored three minutes apart before the second period was halfway over to chase Murphy from the game, Boychuk and Staal answered back to tie it less than two minutes later with goals 53 second apart.
In a season that has gone from an extremely slow start to a gradual turn in the right direction to a blistering March that set a new team record for most wins in any month in team history (11-4-0), that kind of immediate response to adversity may be the most dramatic change of all.
“One thing we struggled with early in the year was making a commitment for 60 minutes,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “No matter if we get up two or down two, we’ve got to keep playing until the final whistle. Tonight that showed, because when we got down 4-2 we could have packed it in after a tough month but we stuck with it. We knew this was two points we needed.”
“That all comes with confidence,” said Boychuk, who is now tied for first in the league with 32 goals, two off the team record set by Terry in the club’s first AHL season. “In the beginning of the year we did get a little rattled when we got scored on and we were almost finding ways to lose those one-goal games. Now we’re finding ways to win.”
It wasn’t as though the rest of the game was uneventful after the wild six-goal second, though the third period very much looked like two tired teams very intent on ensuring they came away with at least one point. There were still plenty of chances both ways, with Muse every bit as good as he was the night before despite coming in cold.
“It’s nothing abnormal,” said Muse of the highly abnormal situation of playing two shootouts in less than 24 hours despite not starting one of those games. “We practice odd-man rushes and shootouts in practice. Whoever is in there is going to be ready when that happens.”
“For me, it all starts with his preparation and the way he prepares whether it’s in practice or on game days where he’s not playing,” said Daniels, who made the decision to put Muse in the game after Murphy allowed four goals on 12 shots. “He’s ready.”
“I thought about it, but he’s coming of an injury a week ago and he’s playing back-to-backs,” said Daniels on how close he came to using Muse right off the bat despite the short turnaround, as the Barons did with Bachman. “I thought Murphy had three previous games where he gave us a chance to win. We’re looking at the big picture where Muser is going to play a lot down the stretch and we want to make sure he’s fresh.”
Muse finished the weekend by stopping nine of 11 in the shootouts, including a walk-off save on Matthew Ford in the fifth round of this game after Terry and Justin Shugg had scored in the third and fourth rounds, respectively, to put the Checkers up 2-1 and answer an opening goal by Jack Combs.
Their busiest month of the season now complete, the Checkers get four days to rest – their longest break since the All-Star break in mid-February – before beginning yet another grueling stretch of games this weekend. Before renewing hostilities with the Barons on Saturday and Sunday, they must first hop on an extended bus ride following the first of a three-in-three set in San Antonio on Friday.
With tough stretches like that in mind, results like these are all the more important.
“These are big points we’ve got to keep putting in the bank,” said Daniels. “We’re not where we want to be right now just based on the amount of games we’ve got left, so we’ve got to keep pushing forward.”