CHARLOTTE, NC – After losing a string of close games, the Checkers finally got over the hump.
Brody Sutter scored the overtime winner as the Checkers rallied from a 2-0 deficit after the first 10 minutes of the first period to record a 3-2 victory over the Rockford IceHogs at Time Warner Cable Arena on Thursday. Zach Boychuk scored the Checkers’ other two goals, while John Muse made 32 saves.
For a team that had struggled to come back after falling behind, had not won a game when trailing at an intermission and been tied early in the third period in each of their last four losses, this win solved a little bit of everything.
“It’s huge,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “It does a lot for the confidence in that locker room, and they’re a pretty excited group getting that goal in overtime. Hopefully we can build off it, but I liked the emotion that we showed tonight. We stuck with it throughout the game and got rewarded with the win.”
“It’s something we’ve talked about as a team, and it’s nice to finally pull one out,” said Sutter, who netted his third of the season. “We’ve had a couple of games now where we were tied going in the third and found ways to lose, so it was nice to find a way to win tonight.”
Prior to Thursday’s game, the Checkers were 0-6-0 when allowing the other team to score first, were 0-6-0 when trailing after the first period and 0-9-0 when trailing after the second.
“We wanted to find a way to make a comeback win, and we hadn’t been able to do that,” said Boychuk. “It seemed like every time the other team went up we weren’t able to fight our way back, and we’d kind of get a little fragile and lose some confidence. To finally get one really helps.”
Sutter, who also scored in overtime as part of a two-goal performance in the Checkers’ first playoff game last season, got the winner when defenseman Rasmus Rissanen intercepted a would-be clearing attempt and fired it on net, with Kent Simpson making the initial save. However, the rebound shot over to Sutter on the left side, who gathered the loose puck in his skate before getting it on his stick for the finish.
It was the second-year center’s first goal since Oct. 27, though he missed six games to injury in the interim.
“I want to be a guy that produces offensively, and being the third-line center you have to be a secondary scorer,” said Sutter. “I feel like I’ve done an OK job of that so far, but I need to be a lot better and hopefully this gets me going in the right direction.”
“He’s shown it in the past and in the playoffs last year,” said Daniels. “He’s got the skill set to make plays and finish plays, and that’s a big goal for his confidence.”
One player who has no shortage of confidence of late is Boychuk, who now has four goals during a three-game streak and seven in his last nine games. Both goals on Thursday were the result of similar plays, in which he hounded after loose pucks before providing the kind of finish typical from one of the Checkers’ top scorers over the last four seasons.
Boychuk’s first goal came in the first period, turning the tide after the IceHogs went up 2-0 on a goal by Kyle Beach in the game’s first 81 seconds, a shot from the right circle, and another by Mark McNeill, who benefited from a turnover behind the Charlotte net and walked in front for the uncontested finish.
After that tally, in which he hit the post on a wraparound, got a piece of the rebound and then touched it a third time to roof it over Simpson, he struck on a third-period power play that carried over from the second, jumping on yet another loose puck for his team-leading ninth of the season.
“He’s doing what he needs to do,” said Daniels. “He’s a goal scorer, and he’s scoring goals for us, his compete level is higher and all the things he needs to do when he’s not scoring is coming around. We’ve talked enough over the last couple of weeks that he understands he needs to be a leader on this team, and right now he’s stepping up.”
“Things are starting to go my way,” said Boychuk. “I had a bit of a slow start to the year, and now the goals are starting to go in.”
Boychuk, who nearly completed the game-winning hat trick on the rush in the final minute of regulation, said he felt that his season began to turn around after a meeting with Cory Stillman, a member of the Carolina Hurricanes’ player development team, while the Checkers were on the road in Toronto last month.
“It made me realize that you have to be excited to come to the rink every day,” said Boychuk. “There’s going to be times where it’s tough and the team’s losing, but you’ve got to almost find a way to fake it. The confidence starts coming your way and you find your stride back.”
While the Checkers, who have struggled to produce for much of this season, will take offense where they can get it, there defense was perhaps even more important in this particular game. That was especially true during a second period that saw the IceHogs earn eight minutes of power-play time, leading to a lopsided 19-2 shots advantage for the visitors. That included a four-minute double minor that Keegan Lowe earned for an accidental high stick on fellow rookie Philippe Danault, who was left writhing in pain and had to leave the game.
In each instance, the Checkers, whose penalty kill entered the game ranked 25th in the league, held the IceHogs off the board. They would finish the night 4-for-4 on the penalty kill and are now a perfect 12-for-12 over their last three games.
“For me, the PK won us the game,” said Daniels.
Muse was no small part of that, with his save total marking his highest since his last meeting with Rockford on Halloween.
“To be honest I don’t talk to the goalies much other than to let them know that they’re playing,” said Daniels. “I just let them be, and Muser has always been a competitor, always focused and very driven. You just have to let him know that he’s playing and you know that he’s going to be prepared.”
The Checkers will now play another game against Rockford on Saturday, continuing a 10-game home stand that they’ve begun with a record of 2-1-0. It will also be their sixth meeting with the IceHogs this season, with Rockford responsible for three of the Checkers’ four victories since Oct. 31.
NOTES: The Checkers improved to 3-1-1 against Rockford this season … The Checkers had played a league-low one overtime game, a shootout loss in Rockford on Oct. 26, prior to Thursday … Boychuk is the fifth Checkers player to score in three consecutive games this season (Mark Flood, Chris Terry, Aaron Palushaj and Victor Rask) … Terry and Brett Sutter each had two assists, all of which came on Boychuk’s goals … The Checkers’ two shots in the second period were a season low … Defensman Michal Jordan returned after missing six games due to injury. He hit a post in the first period and took a tripping penalty in the second … Mike Murphy also returned from injury to back up Muse, dressing for his first Checkers game since Oct. 20 … A.J. Jenks made his season debut for the Checkers after signing a tryout contract earlier in the day … Forwards Jared Staal and Sean Dolan did not play due to injury, while defenseman Beau Schmitz was a healthy extra.