Checkers hang on in Rockford

ROCKFORD, Ill. — With the momentum firmly against them in the third period, the Checkers bounced back to earn a road victory over the Western Conference’s leading team.

After the Checkers surrendered a three-goal lead over first-place Rockford early in the third period, Aaron Palushaj answered back in short order as the visitors held on for a 5-3 victory on Thursday. John Muse saw his team-record shutout streak end at 154:03 during a 35-save effort, with Victor Rask (two), Chris Terry and Nicolas Blanchard also scoring for Charlotte.

Charlotte Checkers 2010 PrimaryWith the win, the Checkers, who were playing the second of back-to-back games down one skater due to injuries and Carolina’s signing of Manny Malhotra earlier in the day, improved to 3-1-1 through five games of their current six-game road trip that ends Saturday in San Antonio. They are now 5-1-1 on the road this season.

Up 3-0 late in the second period thanks to Rask, a rookie center who became the first Checker to record a multi-goal game this season, and Terry, who extended his point streak to a career-best nine games, the Checkers seemed to be cruising to victory.

Rask had opened the scoring with a breakaway goal that beat Rockford’s Antti Raanta to the short side and added another off the rush during a second-period power play, giving him three goals in his last two games. Terry scored just 51 seconds into the second period, deflecting a Keegan Lowe shot over a crouched Raanta while left alone in front of goal.

However, a goal by Garret Ross, which came on his team’s third attempt on goal after Muse had made two point-blank saves, ended Muse’s shutout streak that started with his first minute played in the AHL this season. Including two shutouts since rejoining the Checkers on a professional tryout contract last week, Muse topped Dan Ellis’ old club record, set last season, by just 59 seconds.

Ross’ goal also gave the IceHogs, who had defeated Charlotte 2-1 in the shootout just five days earlier as part of a three-game win streak and six-game point streak (5-0-1), some life and momentum that carried over into the third period with the help of Checkers penalties.

After Muse had stopped Mark McNeill on a breakaway and with Danny Biega already in the box for interference, Jared Staal’s cross check gave the IceHogs a five-on-three power play lasting one minute and 22 seconds, which they would take advantage of twice. First, McNeill scored on a shot from the right point that hit the top corner of the net through traffic, with Jimmy Hayes doing something similar on the more conventional five-on-four portion of the man advantage.

The sequence marked the first time the Checkers had surrendered a three-goal lead on the road since Jan. 23, 2011, when they led Wilkes-Barre/Scranton by a 4-1 mark in the first period.

Like that bygone game, the Checkers would go on to win this one thanks to a quick response. With the building still buzzing after Hayes’ equalizer less than two minutes earlier, Palushaj surprised Raanta with a shot from a sharp angle that found daylight between the near post and the goalie’s right pad. It marked Palushaj’s third goal in his last three games and extended his point streak to four. The goal came less than a minute after Charlotte defenseman Matt Corrente had dropped the gloves with former Carolina Hurricane Wade Brookbank at center ice.

With the lead back in their favor, the Checkers still needed a few sharp saves from Muse, who made a particularly strong effort against Hayes, his former teammate at Boston College. Charlotte’s short-term cause was aided when Brad Winchester took a five-minute major penalty for interference with 4:36 remaining, ensuring the Checkers would finish the game on the power play.

The long term causes of that play will remain to be seen, however, with Checkers All-Star defenseman Michal Jordan suffering an injury on the play, a high hit delivered well after Jordan had moved the puck. After remaining down on the ice for several moments, Jordan left the game and did not return, though there was not much time left on the clock for him to do so.

Winchester, a veteran of 390 NHL games, also received a game misconduct.

With Rockford pulling Raanta to play the last minute of the game at five-on-five, Blanchard fired a loose puck into the empty net while in the Checkers’ defensive zone for his second goal of the season. It was technically a power-play goal, his first since Oct. 28 of last season.

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