Needing a response after losing a two-goal lead with just over eight minutes to play, the Checkers got one from a most unlikely source.
Rookie defenseman Rasmus Rissanen, he of exactly zero goals in 34 professional games, put the Checkers ahead for good with 6:34 left on the clock in an eventual 4-2 win over the Grand Rapids Griffins on Sunday. Not only would he not have been the popular choice to pot the game winner, but the manner in which he scored it – an unassisted rush from center ice against a handful of opposing defenders – was equally surprising.
“We had a player who looked like Bobby Orr out there, Rasmus Rissanen” said Checkers center Zac Dalpe, referring to the Hall of Fame defenseman known for pioneering similar plays. “That was unbelievable. He’s half the number (Rissanen wears No. 2, Orr wore No. 4) but looked like the same player.”
“Riss scoring that goal was unbelievable,” said Checkers goalie Mike Murphy, who finished with 31 saves. “It couldn't happen to a better guy. The kid works hard every single day, and if you saw the reaction on our bench, that was a huge, huge goal.”
Justin Soryal and Dalpe also scored to put the Checkers up 2-0, a lead they would lose when Joakim Andersson scored to tie it with 8:12 to play in regulation. That was when Rissanen stepped up to beat goalie Joey MacDonald with a backhand from the right circle that sent the full crowd at Time Warner Cable Arena into a frenzy.
“I'm very happy about it. It's my first goal, we had a good crowd tonight and it was a big goal for us, so for sure I'm going to remember it for the rest of my life,” said Rissanen.
Though he likely didn’t expect the winning goal to come off the stick of his 20-year-old Finnish defender, Checkers coach Jeff Daniels said that his surprise was tempered somewhat by the player’s improvement throughout the season.
“He’s shown that he can play with the puck and that he can play in this league,” said Daniels. “He’s a guy that doesn’t make the headlines and doesn’t appear on the stat sheet, but he’s a big part of this team and it’s nice to see him get rewarded.”
“I feel more confident every week, and it’s nice that the coach is giving me more and more ice time,” said Rissanen.
Daniels said that the life given to the bench by a player like Rissanen scoring allowed them to have a strong finish which limited Grand Rapids’ chances until Chris Terry iced the game with an empty-net goal in the final minute. That helped avoid the type of late meltdown that plagued the team earlier in the season.
“You look back at the start of the season where we didn’t respond well to that,” said Daniels. “Now this team has grown a lot and realized it's a 60-minute game.”
The Checkers looked to be in prime position to end their three-game winless streak with less drama earlier in the game when Soryal opened the scoring on a deflection in the first period and Dalpe added to it with a four-on-three power-play goal in the second. Soryal’s goal, his third of the season, was his first since Nov. 12 and ended a 24-game drought. Dalpe’s tally extended his point streak to a season-high five games (4g, 2a), a far cry from a December stretch in which he did not score a goal in eight consecutive contests.
“Before, I was a little too hard on myself,” said Dalpe of his waning confidence during his scoring drought. “I sat down with (Assistant Coach) Geordie (Kinnear), and we kind of came to the conclusion that I was my own worst enemy.”
“For me he has the puck a lot more, and when he’s got the puck he’s skating with it,” said Daniels. “When he got sent down (from the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes on Jan. 4), the message was to push the pace, and he’s done that.”
Other than Andersson’s goal, a finish off a nice cross-ice pass from Chris Conner, the Griffins also scored when Willie Coetzee corralled a puck that deflected off Rissanen’s stick and put it past Murphy with just 1:21 left in the second period.
The two teams will meet again on Tuesday, which will mark the third of the four-game season series. The Checkers won each of the first two games, including a 2-1 win in Grand Rapids on Nov. 5.
NOTES: Charlotte broke a tie with Chicago to reclaim sole possession of first place in the Midwest Division … Terry’s goal was his second in as many games and third point in his last two contests … Checkers scoring leader Jon Matsumoto assisted on each of the team’s first two goals … Sean Dolan, a South Carolina Stingrays center on a professional tryout with the Checkers, picked up his second career AHL assist on Terry’s goal … Murphy was making his fifth consecutive start in goal … Charlotte’s Chris Durno, Riley Nash, Mathieu Roy and Justin Shugg all sat out due to injury … Fans named Rissanen winner of the Roll up Your Sleeves Hardest Worker of the Game Award.