(Check GoCheckers.com throughout the series for a tracker, complete with recaps, notes and news clippings)
As a result of eliminating the two-time defending champion Hershey Bears and regular-season champion Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, the Checkers will now face division rivals, the Binghamton Senators, in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The schedule is as follows:
Eastern Conference Final (best-of-seven)
Charlotte Checkers vs. Binghamton Senators
Game 1 – Thu., May 12 – Binghamton at Charlotte - TICKETS
Game 2 – Fri., May 13 – Binghamton at Charlotte - TICKETS
Game 3 – Tue., May 17 – Charlotte at Binghamton
Game 4 – Wed., May 18 – Charlotte at Binghamton
*Game 5 – Sat., May 21 – Charlotte at Binghamton
*Game 6 – Mon., May 23 – Binghamton at Charlotte
*Game 7 – Tue., May 24 – Binghamton at Charlotte
(*if necessary. All game times 7:05 p.m. EST)
Checkers – REGULAR SEASON / PLAYOFFS
Senators – REGULAR SEASON / PLAYOFFS
How the Checkers come in…
The Checkers arrive in the Eastern Conference Finals as the only AHL team to knock off two opponents who had compiled 100+ points in the regular season.
Fueled by incredible comebacks, late-game heroics and sound goaltending, Charlotte won each of its first two series in six games. Game 5 of the Hershey series and Game 6 of the Wilkes-Barre series each included late comebacks from three-goal deficits and every Checkers win in the playoffs has been decided in the third period or later. In 12 games so far, Charlotte has outscored its opponents, 17-8, in the third period or later.
Having missed the playoffs in each of the five prior seasons and having started the season with a 15-15-2-2 record, the Senators were seven points out of a playoff spot on Jan. 1. However, starting with a win in Charlotte on New Year’s Day, Binghamton went 27-15-1-3 in its final 46 games to finish fifth in the East Division (92 points) and earn a crossover berth into the Atlantic Division’s playoff bracket.
In the first round, Binghamton drew the second-place Manchester Monarchs and fell into an early 3-1 hole. The resilient Senators then rallied for three straight overtime wins to advance to the Atlantic Division Finals, where they knocked out the 103-point Portland Pirates in six games. In all, Binghamton sports four overtime wins, a 6-1 record on the road and has trailed at least once in six of its eight playoff wins.
Regular Season Series
In eight regular-season meetings, the Checkers and Senators played as even a series as could be. Each team won twice at home and twice on the road and finished with 4-3-1-0 head-to-head records.
Following a regular season where they finished second in AHL scoring (3.31 goals per game) and a first-round series which produced 19 goals in six games, the Checkers were limited to just six goals in the first five-plus games against the Penguins. However, trailing by three goals in the third period of Game 6, the offense erupted for four goals in a span of 9:18 to eliminate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Charlotte’s leading scorer in the East Division Finals was Brett Sutter. With two goals and three assists in the series, Sutter’s production came when his team needed it the most. He netted the overtime winner in Game 3 in Charlotte and figured in on three of the four goals (1g, 2a) in the series-deciding Game 6.
The exclamation point in the Charlotte’s Game 6 comeback was provided by Zac Dalpe, who tallied the series-winning goal and finished second on the team with four points (2g, 2a) against the Penguins. Overall in the playoffs, Dalpe has 12 points (5g, 7a), which lead the Checkers and all AHL rookies.
In the regular season, Binghamton was led by AHL MVP Corey Locke’s 86 points (21g, 65a), which paced all AHL players and were 30 more than his next highest scoring teammate.
But, in the playoffs, the Senators’ offense has been buoyed by their supporting cast, as Locke hasn’t scored a goal in his team’s 13 playoff games. Despite limited production from Locke (0g, 6a), the Senators have six players in the top 20 in AHL playoff scoring, while late-season acquisition Ryan Potulny leads the league in playoff goals (10) and points (19).
In Charlotte’s six-game series against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, its best player was undoubtedly goaltender Mike Murphy. Murphy stopped 190-of-199 shots (.955 save pct.) in six games against the Penguins and held an AHL playoff-high scoreless streak of 161:11 between the first period of Game 3 and third period of Game 5.
Since taking over for Justin Pogge following Game 2 against Hershey, Murphy has arguably been the AHL’s best goaltender, statistically. He leads all goaltenders in save percentage (.944), ranks third with a 1.79 goals-against average and holds a 7-3 record.
During the regular season, the Senators received excellent goaltending from Barry Brust, whose 29 wins, .925 save percentage and seven shutouts put him amongst the league leaders in three of the four major categories.
Brust, however, struggled and allowed 16 goals in the first four games against Manchester in the first round before Robin Lehner took over as Binghamton’s top goaltender.
In nine playoff starts, the 19-year-old Swede is 7-2, with a 2.59 goals-against average and .926 save percentage. Additionally, Lehner has come up big when facing elimination. In three possible elimination games which went to overtime in the first round, he made 14 saves, when a single blemish would have meant the end of his team’s season.
One of the main reasons the Checkers have been able to eliminate Hershey and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, both favorites to win a Calder Cup, has been an outstanding penalty-killing unit. Charlotte has killed 56-of-60 (93.3%) penalties in the playoffs, while snuffing out 30-of-30 at home and thwarting 8-of-9 5-on-3 disadvantages.
Although just 7-of-66 (10.6%) on the power play themselves, the Checkers have scored timely goals when holding a man advantage, including 2-of-4 game-winning goals against the Penguins.
Following a regular season when they led the AHL with 81 power-play goals and a 22.8% success rate, the Senators have kept pace and gone 21.7% in the playoffs, which is the best among remaining teams.
On the other side of the spectrum, Binghamton has given up 10 power-play goals on 46 times shorthanded (78.3% success), which is the second lowest rate among remaining playoff teams. Though they gave up eight power-play goals in the first round, it seems the Senators’ penalty killing unit has rebounded and was beaten in just one game against Portland.
Check back throughout the series at www.GoCheckers.com for a series tracker, complete with recaps, notes, stats and news clippings.