Having lost a handful of their own top-six forwards in recent days, the Checkers used someone else’s to get the job done.
Matt Beca and David Rutherford, high scorers at the ECHL level who had all of two career AHL goals between them entering the game, scored power-play goals in a 3-2 win over the Oklahoma City Barons on Sunday. Justin Shugg added a third with three minutes remaining and Justin Peters was again stellar in goal, making 33 saves to give the Checkers their sixth win in eight games.
Offensive contributions from non-traditional sources will be crucial down the stretch for the Checkers, who were playing without Zac Dalpe and Andreas Nodl, who are expected to miss significant time with lower-body injuries, and captain Brett Sutter, who joined the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes earlier in the day.
“It’s great, and we need that,” said coach Jeff Daniels of the goals by Beca and Rutherford. “We need guys to chip in as a team, and I thought we did that tonight.”
Scoring chances at even strength were few and far between for both teams, making those goals and the goaltending of Peters all the more important. Peters was particularly sharp down the stretch, when the Barons applied pressure with their own netminder pulled for the extra attacker. They would end up scoring once with 11 seconds left, but it was too little, too late.
With Carolina Hurricanes starter Cam Ward suffering an injury during the team’s simultaneous game against the Florida Panthers, it’s possible that Sunday’s game is the last the Checkers will see of their All-Star goalie for some time.
“He’s proven that all year,” said Daniels of Peters’ readiness to take the next step if Ward has to miss time. “I’m sure they’ll be comfortable with him if needed.”
“I’m just trying to prove myself every day,” said Peters, who is tied for second in the AHL with six shutouts. “If I’m called upon that’s great, but I’m just trying to focus on what I can control.”
Until the Barons’ late consolation against Peters, Rutherford’s first career AHL goal looked as though it would be the game winner. The forward, playing for the first time since Feb. 1 after missing time with a concussion, took a nice feed from Jeremy Welsh and rounded goalie Olivier Roy for the backhand finish at the midway point of the third period.
For a player that had 32 points in 31 games with the ECHL’s Florida Everblades at the time of his recall, the power play was not entirely an unfamiliar spot though he had yet to play there with the Checkers.
“It was an opportunity and I had to make the best of tonight,” said Rutherford, a former ECHL Checker who drew the boarding penalty that led to his goal. “When there are injuries, it’s a chance for guys to do something and get their careers jumping.”
Beca, who had 33 points in 42 games for the Everblades and the South Carolina Stingrays prior to being thrust into a scoring role with the Checkers, had originally gotten his team on the board as Barons penalty killers left him alone in the slot to finish a feed from Luke Pither in the first period.
It was the second AHL goal of the season and third career AHL goal for Beca, who has been a point-per-game player in the ECHL over the last three seasons.
“They've scored in the past, and now it’s just a question of if they can do it at the next level,” said Daniels.
"The coaches have done a good job of getting everyone to buy into our system," said Peters, who praised the defense and hustle of those who have joined the team from the ECHL. "All those guys are working hard and trying to prove they can be a regular."
The Checkers, who had the AHL’s 30th-ranked power play at home entering the game, finished the night 2-for-4, including goals on each of their first two opportunities. Those chances were always going to be key, as the team struggled to apply pressure on the Barons’ defense throughout the game.
“(The power play) has been big for us all year, but we’re going to have to find a way to generate more at five-on-five,” said Daniels. “It’s nice that we got those goals tonight, but you can’t rely on your power play because there will be games when you don’t get as many chances.
“Just keep it simple,” added Daniels when asked how his team could accomplish that goal. “If you’re not getting chances you can’t turn down chances, so we have to be sure we’re getting the puck at the net.”
The Checkers, who improved to 4-3-0 in the eight-game season series with Oklahoma City that concludes with tomorrow night’s rematch, have 10 goals in their last 25 chances (40 percent) against the Barons’ 30th-ranked penalty kill.
Shugg’s goal with three minutes left looked as though it would be insurance but ended up as the game-winner due to Dane Byers’ late goal for Oklahoma City. The forward, who also started the season in the ECHL, took a pass from Marc-Andre Gragnani and beat Roy through the five hole for his fifth of the season.
The Barons arrived in Charlotte at 11 a.m. Sunday after playing in Texas the night before … The Checkers killed both Oklahoma City power plays, improving to 22-for-22 over their last six games. They have not allowed a power-play goal since Feb. 14 … Gragnani’s assist was his sixth in as many games … In addition to Dalpe, Nodl and Sutter, the Checkers were also playing without injured forwards A.J. Jenks and Jerome Samson ... Fans named Peters the Roll up Your Sleeves Hardest Worker of the Game.
North Carolina Education Lottery Three Stars
1. David Rutherford
2. Jeremy Welsh
3. Justin Peters