For a team that had been struggling to create scoring chances since the NHL’s lockout ended, the Checkers had no shortage of them on Sunday.
Five different players had multi-point games, including a career-high three by recent addition Luke Pither, as the Checkers broke through for a 6-1 win over the Norfolk Admirals at Time Warner Cable Arena. Justin Peters made 31 saves for Charlotte, which won for the seventh time in eight games and for the third time in three meetings with Norfolk this season.
It was a game that the Checkers, who set and tied a team record with just 17 shots in each of their last two games, dominated from the start, having built a 3-0 lead before 10 minutes had passed.
“The power play got us going early and that gave us momentum and confidence,” said coach Jeff Daniels, who saw Riley Nash and Tim Wallace score on the man advantage at the two- and five-minute marks, respectively.
Chris Terry, who also had an assist, scored to cap the team’s early onslaught against Norfolk, which was playing for the third time in three nights while the Checkers had been off since Thursday. The goals came against goalie Jeff Deslauriers, who has 62 games of NHL experience but was playing his first game of the season at any level.
Even with the lead, the Checkers didn’t let up moving forward, with Pither making it 4-0 in the second period and 5-1 in the third on either side of Rod Pelley’s rebound goal that spoiled Peters’ shutout bid. All-Star defenseman Michal Jordan capped the scoring with two and a half minutes remaining with his third goal in two games.
Pither, who assisted on Wallace’s goal with a nice cross-crease pass, now has five points in three games as a Checker following his acquisition via trade exactly one week earlier.
“I’ve got my confidence back, which is something I’d lost over the last couple of years,” said the 23-year-old center, who spent the early part of the season as a Philadelphia Flyers prospect playing at ECHL Wheeling. “It’s good to contribute right away.”
Pither’s first goal Sunday was reminiscent of his first as a Checker as he came down the left wing with speed and sent a perfectly-placed wrist shot over the goalie’s shoulder. He added to it in the third period, scoring the Checkers’ third power-play goal of the game on a rebound from Wallace’s sharp-angle shot.
“He plays with a lot of speed, has a great shot and made a nice pass to Timmy Wallace on his goal,” said Daniels of Pither. “It’s a fresh start for him and he’s making the most of it.”
The most productive of the Checkers’ recent additions from the ECHL, Pither still had plenty of help from a returning cast of veterans. Nash (1g, 1a) now has 10 points in his last eight games, Wallace (1g, 1a) has nine in his last four and Andreas Nodl recorded his first two points as a Checker, both assists. Defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani also made an impressive return from injury, looking confident and chipping in one assist despite missing the last 13 games with a lower-body injury.
“They’re showing a lot of character,” said Daniels of that group, many of which were in contention for NHL jobs with the Carolina Hurricanes. “They’re just focusing on what they can control, and that’s playing well down here.”
“A little bit, but it’s kind of exciting at the same time” said Nash when asked if he felt more pressure to produce offensively with many of the team’s top offensive players in the NHL since last week. “You get more responsibility and you push yourself a little harder, and I enjoy that.”
An important member of the team’s leadership group, captain Brett Sutter, surprisingly hobbled away from a faceoff at center ice in the second period and did not return. After the game, Daniels, still missing alternate captain Nicolas Blanchard, veteran scorer Jerome Samson and versatile forward A.J. Jenks due to injury, said that Sutter should be fine to play the conclusion of the week’s home-and-home series with the Admirals at Norfolk on Wednesday.
With both teams off until then, Daniels said that he’s expecting quite a different game from the Admirals, who picked up their physical play late in the third period with the game’s outcome long decided.
“They’ve got a lot of pride on that team and they played hard right to the end,” said Daniels of Norfolk. “We’re going to see their best on Wednesday night, and we know that.”
The Checkers’ three power-play goals were the most they’ve scored since notching four at Grand Rapids on Oct. 26 … Gragnani, who had not played since Dec. 16, extended his point streak to four games (1g, 3a) … Justin Shugg recorded one assist to extend his point streak to a career-best five games (1g, 4a) … Nash had two points for the second consecutive game (1g, 3a) … Wallace has three consecutive multi-point games (2g, 6a) … Jordan, who had nine goals in his previous 182 AHL games, has three in two games since his first career All-Star selection … Fans named Pither the Roll up Your Sleeves Hardest Worker of the Game.