The battle between two of the AHL’s hottest teams ended up being a doozy.
Down 4-0 with just over eight minutes remaining in regulation, the Checkers reeled off a furious rally, including Zach Boychuk’s goal with five seconds left to force overtime, but ultimately fell in the shootout to cap a 5-4 defeat to the Peoria Rivermen.
Boychuk’s goal was part of a three-point night (1g, 2a) for the Checkers, whose winning streak ended at four games. Peoria, which scored on two of its three shootout attempts to steal back the extra point, has now win six consecutive games heading into Friday’s rematch at Time Warner Cable Arena.
The Checkers’ offensive outburst, which featured two goals by Bobby Sanguinetti and another by Riley Nash to set up Boychuk’s equalizer, was a continuation of what they had done earlier in a game that they dominated at times, finishing with a 54-29 advantage in shots on goal. The only difference was that they were finally able to solve goalie Mike McKenna, who finished with 50 saves in regulation and overtime and stopped all four Checkers in the shootout.
“Give the guys credit because it would have been easy to pack it in and get ready for tomorrow, but they kept coming,” said coach Jeff Daniels.
“I don’t think anyone would have bet on us coming back,” said Boychuk, who now has eight points (1g, 7a) over the course of a five-game point streak.
Though the Checkers never stopped peppering the outstanding McKenna with shots – they led 8-1 after five minutes of the game and mostly continued that pace throughout – the breakthrough wouldn’t come until their 43rd shot of the game at the 11:47 mark of the third period when Sangunetti fired a backhander for his third of the season. Under two minutes later, the defenseman, who had previously not scored since Nov. 18, added another on a big rebound of a shot by Boychuk, who also picked up the primary helper on the first goal.
“We just had to start with the first one,” said Sanguinetti. “It seemed like it gave some energy to the team.”
Things still seemed bleak until Nash made it 4-3 with 1:35 to go on a great setup by Zac Dalpe, who also assisted on the Checkers’ second. That set the stage for the goal that blew the roof off Time Warner Cable Arena, when Boychuk fired a loose puck past McKenna with the extra attacker on the ice and just five seconds left on the clock.
“It was an unbelievable feeling,” said Boychuk, who, despite his career-long assist streak, was in the midst of an eight-game goal drought. “I’ve been searching for that goal for a while now.”
Though they looked dangerously close to scoring the winner in overtime, the Checkers eventually had to settle for the shootout, where they fell to 2-3 on the season. Justin Peters, who had stopped all eight shots he faced in relief of starter Dan Ellis, gave up goals to Phil McRae and Jaden Schwartz, while Justin Krueger, Jerome Samson, Chris Terry and Drayson Bowman all missed for the Checkers.
“You go to the shootout and you’re rolling the dice at that point,” said Daniels.
Despite the thrilling comeback – the only time the Checkers have erased a four-goal deficit in their history – the loss left mixed emotions heading into tomorrow’s rematch. Despite the consistent offensive onslaught, the Checkers were, after all, down 4-0 at one point and trailed ever since they gave up a goal to T.J. Hensick just 33 seconds into the first period.
“We wanted to get two points and we didn’t get two points,” said Daniels.
After the game, Daniels pointed to a few goals Ellis would have liked to have back, including two in the first three minutes of the third period that put the game seemingly out of reach. There was also an 0-for-6 performance on the power play, including a full two-minute, five-on-three advantage in the second period.
“The five-on-three took a lot of energy out of the building and out of the team,” said Sanguinetti. “That was a big factor in the momentum changing. Early on they outworked us, they were getting to loose pucks and they were winning those battles.”
Incidentally, Boychuk, who also had a game-high seven shots on goal, was still able to point to the lopsided power play situation – the Rivermen got just one power-play, though they made it count with a second-period goal by Mark Cundari – as a reason why the Checkers were able to get back in it.
“Their team was frustrated,” he said. “Right off the hop with the penalties, you could tell they were frustrated and clenching the stick a little tight and kind of backed off a little bit.”
Another reason may have been that the team finally got a read on McKenna, whose size (6-foot-3, 195 pounds) and southpaw status made things difficult initially.
“He’s such a big guy and it’s different shooting on a guy that catches with his right hand,” said Boychuk.
Whatever the reason, the Checkers will consider themselves fortunate to have earned a point, even though it was one that the shot total suggested they deserved all along.
Still, two would have been better.
“It’s a little bit bittersweet,” said Boychuk.
The Rivermen broke a seven-game losing streak to the Checkers dating back to March 21 of last season, and now trail this year’s season series at 1-4-0 … The Checkers’ 54 shots on goal are a team record and the most taken by any AHL team this season … McKenna’s 50 saves tied the most made by any goalie in the AHL this season … The Checkers, who entered the game with the league’s No. 3 power play at 21.4 percent, have had one other 0-for-6 game this season, vs. Oklahoma City on Nov. 24 … The Checkers’ record for fastest goal allowed to start a game is 26 seconds vs. Binghamton on Feb. 18, 2011 … Defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani missed the game with a lower-body injury … Justin Soryal played his first game since Dec. 2, while Justin Shugg and Jared Staal were healthy scratches .. Fans voted Sanguinetti the Roll up Your Sleeves Hardest Worker of the Game.
North Carolina Education Lottery Three Stars
1. Bobby Sanguinetti
2. Zach Boychuk
3. Mike McKenna (Peoria)