After starting the season with a flurry of games on the road, the Checkers are clearly enjoying their long-awaited return home.
Jon Matsumoto scored the winning goal midway through the second period on Wednesday as the Checkers set a new team record with their fifth consecutive win. The victory, a 3-2 decision over the Texas Stars on Wednesday, improved their record to a perfect 3-0 on their current six-game home stand and to 8-1-1 overall at Time Warner Cable Arena this season.
“Going into these home games we talked about how we had to take advantage, and we’ve been doing that,” said Checkers coach Jeff Daniels.
Zac Dalpe and Brett Sutter also scored for Charlotte, which will play a rematch with Texas on Saturday.
It was Dalpe who continued a recent trend of early goals for the Checkers as he scored just 4:23 into the first period, coming down the ice on a partial breakaway before putting a low shot past Texas goaltender Tyler Beskorowany with a defender applying pressure from behind. The goal was Dalpe’s third of the season and gave him six points (3g, 3a) in eight AHL games this season.
Forward Chris Terry earned the primary assist on Dalpe’s goal, extending his point streak to a career-high eight games. During that run, he has two goals and nine assists.
Though pleased with the start, the next several minutes of play caused concern for Daniels. After the Checkers missed a chance to increase their lead on two consecutive power plays immediately following Dalpe’s goal, the Stars would take a 2-1 lead on goals just 1:51 apart midway through the opening frame. The rally started when defenseman Jordie Benn scored on a rebound past the Checkers’ Mike Murphy and teammate Luke Gazdic made no mistake when left completely alone out in front.
“In the first we were trying to win a game without putting the work in,” said Daniels. “It’s kind of a trap we fall into. You start to think it’s going to be easy, and then there’s still 55 minutes left.”
“We always talk about keeping our foot on the gas,” said Matsumoto, who took sole possession of the team scoring lead with his 21st point in 22 games.
Though that may not have happened on this particular night, Sutter’s goal that tied the game with less than three minutes left in the first proved to be the turning point. The Checkers’ captain, in his first game back following a four-game stint in the NHL, tied the game when he walked out from behind the opposition net, cut inside a defender and stuffed home his third goal of the season.
“Suttsy was amazing tonight,” said Murphy, who made 25 saves to secure his second consecutive victory. “He gives the team a lot of energy and is one of the hardest working guys in the league.”
That set the stage for Matsumoto’s winner, which came just after a Checkers’ power play had expired in the second period. Before Texas’ Hubert Labrie could rejoin the play after exiting the penalty box, Matsumoto walked the puck in from along the goal line and beat Beskorowany five hole.
The Checkers had to put forth their best defensive effort late, with the team taking two consecutive penalties with around five minutes remaining in regulation. Their penalty kill would bail them out of that trouble, improving to a perfect five-for-five on the evening.
“The penalty kill was very good, especially late,” said Daniels, whose team was out-shot 13-7 in the final frame. “For a lot of it we got stuck out there … and then you’ve just got to grind it out, and they did that.”
The win completes another somewhat bittersweet effort for the Checkers, who managed to pull out the victory despite perhaps not putting forth their best effort.
“We’re doing some good things, we’ve just got to do them consistently now,” said Daniels. “No matter what you did the last night, you’ve got to go out and prove yourself the next night.”
NOTES: Prior to setting a record on Wednesday, the Checkers had three four-game winning streaks, including two this season … Two of Sutter’s three goals have come in his first game back from an NHL stint … The Checker went 0-5 on the power play … Forwards Jared Staal and Justin Shugg were healthy scratches for Charlotte, while defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti and center Cedric McNicoll remained out with injuries … Fans voted Murphy the Roll up Your Sleeves Hardest Worker of the Game.