CHARLOTTE, NC – The Checkers can finally breathe a sigh of relief.
A 5-2 victory over the Rockford IceHogs on Saturday ended a pair of franchise-record losing streaks – an overall slide of seven consecutive games and a run of six straight home losses to start the season. It marked the team’s first win since Halloween, which also coincided with its most recent meeting against Rockford.
Justin Shugg led the way with two goals, marking his first multi-goal game as a professional, with Mark Flood, Zach Boychuk and Aaron Palushaj also chipping in as the Checkers scored four power-play goals in just six opportunities. John Muse, making his fourth consecutive start, made 21 saves.
For the first time this month, the Checkers can actually head into their next game, a Sunday afternoon rematch with Rockford, relatively relaxed compared to the doom and gloom they’ve faced for the past 23 days.
“It’s huge,” said coach Jeff Daniels of finally getting the victory. “The toughest one (to win) when you lose a bunch in a row like we did is the first one.”
“We needed that one,” said Boychuk, who had two assists for a game-high three points. “It was a long time coming to get a win at home and we were going on a losing streak, so to get a win like that in that fashion feels pretty good.”
Charlotte’s overall losing streak, in which it lost all seven games in regulation, was the longest in the AHL since Manchester’s seven-game slide during the 2011-12 season. The six-game slide at home, also all in regulation, was the longest of its kind since Grand Rapids did the same in 2009-10.
“It’s getting the monkey off our back, I guess you could say,” said Flood, whose sixth goal of the season, a blast from the point, pulled him into a tie for second in AHL goal scoring by defensemen. “I felt bad for the fans because they were supporting us, and the guys in the room were battling.”
The game was actually played more closely than the final score would indicate, with things tied up at two goals apiece until Shugg gave his team the lead with a pretty goal early in the third period, walking in from the corner on the power play, going around a defender and roofing a shot past Rockford goalie Mac Carruth, who was making his AHL debut.
It was a confident goal from Shugg, an offensive player who had not recorded a point in six games coming into Saturday’s outing. He may have gotten a boost from his first strike at the 2:04 mark of the first, a backhander from just inside the blue line that hopped along the ice and past Carruth, who remained frozen in place both while the puck went in and for a solid five seconds afterwards.
“In my mind, when I shot it, I thought it was going wide,” said Shugg. “I couldn’t even really tell you what happened. It was a knuckle puck and caught a right edge to spin or hit a rut in the ice or something to make it cross the goal line.
“I don’t know how long it’s been since I scored (my last goal), so at this point I’d take anything.”
Down by just one goal with just under four minutes remaining, the IceHogs took themselves out of the game by taking three penalties, with the Checkers making them pay in short order. Boychuk’s breakaway goal would have been enough by itself, with Palushaj adding insurance when his shot trickling over the line during a five-on-three.
For a team and players that had been struggling to score – the Checkers had just nine goals in their last six games combined – the breakthrough was a welcome sight.
“Shuggy gets a couple, Palushaj scores and Chucky scores – guys that were fighting for a bit and guys that we look upon to score goals,” said Daniels. “It was big for the win, but in the bigger picture from a mental standpoint which is a big part of the game for those guys, they can relax a bit, not grip the stick as tight and go out and play because they’re a big part of this team.”
“Scoring five goals and a couple of guys chipping in here and there, we just have a lot more confidence.”
Another positive development was the team’s ability to respond from the kind of adversity that would have deflated it in previous games this month. Rockford had tied the game at 2-2 on a goal with 1.1 seconds left in the second period, marking the kind of late goal that can seriously turn a game’s momentum.
“I thought the bench was good,” said Daniels. “After the second period we just said to win the (third) period and win the game.”
The Checkers will now try to begin a new streak against Rockford, a team it has gone 2-0-1 against this season.
“We’ve just got to build on that,” said Daniels of Saturday’s win. “We’ve got some ground to make up, and that starts with a solid effort tomorrow.”
NOTES: The Checkers’ four power-play goals were a season high and fell one short of tying the franchise record set last season … Flood is tied for first among AHL defensemen with four power-play goals … Philippe Cornet, acquired via trade with San Antonio on Friday, recorded two assists in his Checkers debut … Chris Terry played his first Checkers game since Nov. 2 following an NHL stint and took a game-high five shots on goal … The Checkers were 2-for-2 on the penalty kill, preventing the opposing team from scoring a power-play goal for just the fifth time this season … Defenseman Michal Jordan and goalie Mike Murphy missed the game due to injury, while Matt Marquardt was a healthy scratch.