The Norfolk Admirals set an all-time record. The Checkers had a front-row seat.
Norfolk came away 5-0 winners at Time Warner Cable Arena on Sunday, making them the first team in AHL history to reel off 18 consecutive wins. They did so in style, picking up the last two against their regional rival by a combined score of 12-2.
Justin Peters made 20 saves for Charlotte, which suffered its fifth shutout of the season and fell to 2-2-4 in its last 10 games, putting it back into the pack of teams racing for playoff spots in a competitive Western Conference.
“We’ve got two wins over our last couple of weeks, and right now that’s not good enough,” said Charlotte coach Jeff Daniels.
The Checkers will go into Monday as the No. 7 seed in the conference with a record of 32-22-8 and 72 points. That puts them just three points behind Chicago for the No. 3 seed and the Midwest Division lead, though it’s also just two ahead of No. 10 San Antonio.
A bonus for the Checkers is that they have played fewer games than every team in the race, but will catch up on most during an upcoming back-to-back home set against Peoria that begins Tuesday.
“It’s obviously huge,” Checkers center Riley Nash said of that series. “We’ve got games in hand, but we’ve got to step up and make them count.”
Left disappointed by their effort in Friday’s 7-2 loss to the Admirals, the Checkers were reasonably pleased with how they came out of the gate on Sunday. However, Norfolk still took a 2-0 lead into the first intermission on a pair of strange goals.
The first went off the skate of Cory Conacher and dribbled in slowly between the legs of a surprised Peters, while a second went in off the skate of Checkers defenseman Brandon Gentile after Peters had stopped Tyler Johnson’s effort from a sharp angle as he streaked down the right wing.
The Admirals would go on to control the game from that point on, with the Checkers mustering just 20 shots against Norfolk’s Jaroslav Janus, who earned his second career shutout and his 10th consecutive victory.
“When you’re struggling like we are and you get yourself in a hole on two kind of bad bounces, that really deflates the confidence you had going,” said Daniels.
Norfolk’s third was even a touch fortunate, with Alex Hutchings’ stab at a loose puck bouncing though traffic and into the net before Peters could react. However, there was no doubt about Norfolk’s fourth and fifth goals that came less than two minutes apart in the third period. The first was a highlight-reel breakaway move in which Richard Panik intercepted a pass up the middle by Ryan Donald and put his stick between his legs before roofing one over Peters’ blocker. The next was a power-play one-timer that beat Peters from the right circle for Conacher’s second of the game.
“They're not missing a beat out there," said Daniels of Norfolk. "They're playing so well as a team, and when you’re going like that you make your breaks. We had no response.”
Norfolk’s win clinched the eight-game season series between the two clubs and subsequently the inaugural GEICO Cup Challenge. Charlotte had three chances to win the season series by way of a regulation win, but lost each of those games to Norfolk to finish 3-4-1.
The fact that Charlotte wasn’t the only team to have trouble with Norfolk since its last loss on Feb. 5 (the Admirals have out-scored opposing teams 76-29 during their streak) didn’t seem to come to any comfort for the Checkers.
“I don’t want to take any consolation out of it,” said Nash. “If you want to win you’ve got to beat the best teams. I’m not a fan of finishing second or third.”
NOTES: Norfolk rookie Johnson finished with one goal and one assist, giving him 22 points (9g, 13a) during an 11-game point streak that is the longest active streak in the league. He also has goals in his last seven games, also a league-best … Donald, who the Checkers recalled on Saturday, played his third AHL game of the season in place of Bobby Sanguinetti. Sanguinetti and Drayson Bowman were with the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes … Forward Justin Soryal and defensemen Justin Krueger and Mathieu Roy sat out due to injury, while forward Justin Shugg was a healthy scratch … Fans named Checkers defenseman Joe Sova the Roll up Your Sleeves Hardest Worker of the Game.