The Checkers finally won two in a row, even though it didn’t always look like they would.
After Justin Faulk tied the game on a goal with just 12.8 seconds remaining in regulation, fellow defenseman Justin Krueger scored the winner in the seventh round of the shootout for a 3-2 victory over Houston on Friday. The win, coupled with Tuesday’s triumph over Milwaukee, gives the Checkers back-to-back victories for the first time since Nov. 18-21.
Nicolas Blanchard scored the other goal for the Checkers, while Dan Ellis made 20 saves in regulation and overtime before stopping four of seven in the shootout. With the win, Charlotte held on to and increased its lead over Houston in the South Division, which now stands at two points.
For a team that put forth one of its poorest efforts of the season in its last attempt to put together a winning streak, building on the momentum of a strong game earlier in the week was a welcome sight.
“It’s huge,” said Faulk, who scored for the second consecutive game since ending a 10-game drought. “It's nice to string two together here after that slump we were in, and that's just the team we have. Every team goes in their little ruts throughout the year, and it's good to get that out of the way early and it’s good to get back on track.”
“We clawed back from a deficit, and that gives us something to build on for the next game,” said Ellis.
With Marco Scandella’s goal early in the third period putting the visitors up 2-1, it looked as though the Checkers were set to continue a recent trend of alternating wins and losses that started with the final game of a team-record, five-game losing streak on Dec. 6. Then, on what was surely the last shift of the game, Faulk got the puck at the blue line and blasted a shot through traffic, beating goalie Matt Hackett.
“I just tried putting a lot into it and just making sure I got on net,” said Faulk. "If you don't get it on net you don't even give it a chance."
After Hackett robbed defenseman Brett Bellemore in overtime as part of a 35-save effort, the stage then turned to the shootout. Even that had its fill of drama, with Houston’s Justin Fontaine and Johan Larsson each scoring do-or-die goals to extend it into the later sudden-death rounds. In round seven, Krueger, he of three total goals in 77 career AHL games, beat Hackett on a stutter-step move that one simply does not expect to see from a stay-at-home defenseman.
With the successful attempt, Krueger now has three goals in six career shootout attempts.
“You can call him the secret weapon or whatever you want to call him,” said Daniels. “He’s always working on it and it’s not always pretty, but he’s never afraid to try it during the game.”
“The kid should be in the All-Star Game just for shootouts alone,” said Ellis.
For Krueger, scoring in the shootout might be his way to compensate for not scoring during more conventional game action, even though that’s never really been asked of him.
“The game is two-way, and guys like me have to have some offense,” said Krueger. “It’s a lot of fun to keep working on that.”
Jerome Samson, Chris Terry and Zac Dalpe also scored in the shootout, where the Checkers have now won two in a row after starting the season with two losses. Ellis has been in net for three of the team’s shootouts this season, all of which have gone to extra rounds, with Friday marking his first win.
“It’s nice to be on the winning side of it,” said Ellis, who is now 9-4 in shootouts over the course of his 103-game AHL career. “Our shooters all did a good job of finding holes.”
Ellis’s game-winning save came against Nick Palmieri, who wasn’t able to answer Krueger’s tally. However, it may not have been his best – a distinction that would go to a third-period play in which he dove completely across the crease, preventing a sure goal that would have made the score a likely-insurmountable 3-1 in favor of Houston.
“It’s just one of those desperation saves,” said Ellis, an NHL veteran who extended his 25-game tryout contract with the team earlier this week. “You try to throw everything you have at it, and luckily it hit my glove and stayed out.”
Earlier in the game, Blanchard had scored his third goal of the season on a nice setup by Samson, a two-time AHL All-Star who found himself as a healthy scratch for the team’s most recent game on Tuesday. In addition to that pass and his shootout goal, Samson played on special teams and received a regular shift during the four-on-four overtime period.
“He played a smart game,” said Daniels of Samson. “That was the Sammy we’ve seen over the years and we’ll see for the rest of the year.”
After Blanchard’s goal, Houston’s Drew McIntyre had tied the game with 49 seconds left in the second period, with Scandella carrying that momentum into the third period to give the visitors their first and only lead of the game.
The Checkers are now up against the quickest turnaround a professional hockey team is likely to face, as they go from a 7 p.m. start that went all the way into the extra rounds of a shootout to a noon rematch against the Aeros on Saturday, part of a doubleheader with the Charlotte Bobcats at Time Warner Cable Arena.
Any obstacles caused by the tiny gap between games will be nullified by the fact that Houston will be going through the same thing, though the Checkers now clearly have the edge when it comes to momentum.
“Obviously it’s a quick turnaround, and we’ve got to find our game right away,” said Daniels.
Samson has scored on four of his last five shootout attempts after starting his career scoreless in his first five … Prior to scoring against Houston, Dalpe was scoreless in 10 consecutive shootout attempts, including an 0-for-8 showing last season … Charlotte was 0-2 on the power play, extending its season-long drought to four games … Terry, the Checkers’ all-time leader with 12 shootout goals, improved to 15-for-35 in his AHL career … For the second consecutive game, Faulk had a game-high six shots on goal … Houston had won seven times in its last eight games coming in … Forwards Jared Staal and Justin Soryal were healthy scratches for Charlotte, while defenseman Rasmus Rissanen missed his fifth consecutive game with an upper-body injury ... Fans voted Ellis the Roll up Your Sleeves Hardest Worker of the Game.
North Carolina Education Lottery Three Stars
1. Dan Ellis
2. Justin Krueger
3. Matt Hackett (Houston)