In their first meeting with the Checkers this season, the Oklahoma City Barons put their bevy of major-league talent to good use.
NHL All-Star Jordan Eberle scored two goals and 2011 first overall draft pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins added another as Oklahoma City, the team to most benefit from the NHL’s work stoppage, skated away with a 4-2 win in Charlotte on Saturday. Zach Boychuk and Zac Dalpe scored for the Checkers, who saw their point streak end at six games (5-0-1) as they suffered their first regulation loss since Nov. 6.
Though disappointed in the outcome in the first of back-to-back games against the Barons, to some extent, the Checkers could only tip their hats to their opponents.
“I’m happy with the effort, but not the result,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “They’ve got three guys that have scored between 50 and 70 points in the NHL, and they showed that tonight.”
Taylor Hall, the first overall pick in the 2010 draft who rounds out the big three forwards down from the Edmonton Oilers, also figured in on the scoring with two assists, including a nice setup on Nugent-Hopkins’ game winner in the third period that broke a 2-2 tie. Though he has yet to make his NHL debut, defenseman Justin Schultz, the AHL’s scoring leader with 25 points in his first 17 professional games, including two assists tonight, rounds out the group of young stars who otherwise wouldn’t be anywhere near Oklahoma City in terms of both level of play and simple geography.
“Everyone was wary of those three guys, and Schultz makes it four because he’s almost like another forward out there,” said Boychuk. “You play them as hard as you can, but at times you can’t do anything about it.”
That was especially true on Eberle’s second goal of the game that tied the score at 2-2 just 1:25 into the third period. After making a dazzling move to go around Checkers defenseman Rasmus Rissanen, the 2008 first-round pick, who led the Oilers with 76 points last season, came in alone on goalie Justin Peters and roofed a backhand deke into the top corner.
Nugent-Hopkins’ goal would come seven minutes later as Hall made a strong move to get away from Michal Jordan behind the net to find his linemate in front for the finish. Combined, Eberle, Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and Schultz scored eight points on the Barons’ three goals before Colten Teubert, another former first-rounder, added an empty net goal in the final minute.
“That line was dominant in the third period,” said Boychuk.
Still, the Checkers weren’t far off. After a scoreless first period that has come to be the norm in most of their games this season, Dalpe opened the scoring early in the second period on a rebound created by subsequent shots on goal from Justin Faulk, the Checkers’ answer to Oklahoma City’s infusion of lockout talent, and Drayson Bowman.
After Eberle scored his first goal of the game on a backhand saucer pass setup from Schultz, Boychuk reclaimed the lead with 28 seconds remaining in the second period on a four-on-four sequence that, given the players on each team’s roster, was exciting as one might have guessed. The end-to-end action ended when Boychuk, on a two-on-one with Dalpe, kept the puck and fired a shot that may have glanced off the defender before hitting the top corner behind reigning AHL Goalie of the Year Yann Danis.
Boychuk’s goal was his 11th of the year, moving him into a tie for first place in the AHL with four players, including Bowman.
Even after falling behind, the Checkers did everything they could to tie the game, hitting their third and fourth goal posts of the night in the last 10 minutes that were only centimeters away from bouncing in instead of out.
One obstacle for the Checkers was their league-leading power play, which finished the night 0-for-6 against the league’s 28th-ranked penalty kill. That included two separate five-on-threes that were at least a minute in length, with the Barons scoring promptly after each had expired.
“Your team gets pretty excited when it kills a five-on-three like they did, and they built off that,” said Boychuk.”
“On the first one we had some really good chances but he (Danis) made good saves in front and on a breakaway, and on the second we just weren’t sharp,” said Daniels, referring to great chances by Dalpe and Boychuk in the second period. “I don’t think it was why we lost the game, but it didn’t help.
Heading into tomorrow’s rematch, the Checkers said that the fact that they came as close as they did despite a big night from the opposition’s big players could provide a boost for a team that entered the game holding first place in the AHL.
"We can play with them,” said Dalpe. “We're at the top of the league for a reason and we've got to do what they did and use that confidence.”
The loss was the Checkers' fourth regulation loss in 18 games and first time they have lost by more than one goal this season ... The Checkers have just 11 first-period goals in 18 games this season, as opposed to 27 in the second and 25 in the third … Boychuk (2g, 1a) and Bowman (1g, 2a) extended their point streaks to three games … Peters, who finished with 18 saves, lost for the first time in six starts … The Checkers were one game away from tying the longest point streak in team history … Dalpe fired a game-high seven shots on goal … The league’s top two power plays were a combined 0-for-9 on the night … Forwards Justin Soryal and Jared Staal were healthy scratches, while defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani missed his sixth consecutive game with a lower-body injury … Fans named Boychuk the Roll up Your Sleeves Hardest Worker of the Game.