CHARLOTTE, NC – Try as they might during their record losing streak last month, the Checkers were finding ways to lose when they played well. Further suggesting that the tide may be turning following their slow start, the opposite was true on Sunday.
Despite losing leads of 2-0 and 3-2 against a fatigued Norfolk team, the Checkers got an overtime goal from Aaron Palushaj to win their third straight game – all of which were the result of late goals. Beau Schmitz and Zach Boychuk scored in the first period to give the home team an early lead, Justin Shugg added another in the second period and John Muse made 36 saves to earn his fifth straight victory.
As a relatively rested team off since Thursday playing against a team that arrived in Charlotte in the wee hours of Sunday morning, the Checkers may have been guilty of assuming that their 2-0 lead at the first intermission would have been enough.
“I thought we got lucky, to be honest with you,” said coach Jeff Daniels, whose team lost the shot battle 39-27, including a 13-5 mark in the third period. “I thought we had a real good first period, then they kept playing and we stopped playing. To give credit to them, it was a three-in-three and tough travel and they were the better team.”
“I don’t know if we took them too lightly in the second and third because it was a three-for-three for those guys,” said Palushaj of the Admirals, who split a two-game set with Springfield in Norfolk on Friday and Saturday. “Maybe in the back of our minds we thought they were a little tired, so this is a learning tool and a huge two points.”
Palushaj’s goal was his seventh of the season but just his third in his last 17 games, with one of his previous efforts going into an empty net at the end of the game. An experienced scorer at the AHL level, Palushaj had actually passed up a few good scoring chances in the second period to make lower-percentage passes to covered players – a development Daniels found frustrating but didn’t need to stress to the player.
“I think anybody that was watching the game could have told me that,” said Palushaj. “I was pretty hard on myself.”
His game-winning goal, in which he made a quick move with his stick to create just enough of a gap against veteran defenseman Nolan Yonkman on a one-on-one rush with 46 seconds remaining in overtime, may cause him to take advantage of more of his opportunities in the future.
“You see guys in the NHL – how many goals does (Alex) Ovechkin score like that?” said Palushaj, whose shot took a partial deflection off Yonkman before beating standout rookie goaltender John Gibson. “You just try to get it through. Not really picking a corner, just getting the goalie screened by the defenseman and hopefully it goes in.”
“Hopefully that gives him a little confidence that if you shoot the puck, you just never know,” said Daniels.
If so, Palushaj would just be the latest in a team full of players whose confidence has grown immensely in recent weeks. Boychuk, for example, now has a team-leading 11 goals on the season, including nine in his last 13. Sunday’s goal came in the final minute of the first period when Brett Sutter won the puck as the lone man in on the forecheck against three Admirals and waited for Boychuk to come streaking down the left wing for the tap-in finish.
That, along with Schmitz’s shot on the game’s first power play, was what gave the Checkers’ their two-goal lead that dissipated in less than a minute in period two when Max Friberg and Charles Saurault finally cashed in on rapidly building Norfolk pressure in front of Muse.
Instead of withering after that quick turn of events, the Checkers, as they had done in their two previous wins against San Antonio last week, fought back. This time it was through a goal by Shugg, who tipped Matt Corrente’s point shot off another body and past Gibson, to reclaim Charlotte’s lead after an additional 74 seconds.
“I think we’re growing as a team,” said Palushaj, whose team later gave up another tying goal to Norfolk’s Emerson Etem early in the third period. “We don’t get as down. When they tied it up 2-2 or it was a 3-3 game, we weren’t deflated as a team and that’s a sign of our team maturing.”
“For a long time we had a lot of things go against us and we weren’t playing our best hockey, but we seem to be finding our stride now,” said Sutter. “They’re ugly games, but that’s the way our team’s going to have to play to win.”
As they found out during a 2-9-0 month of November, it doesn’t matter how you win.
“It’s night and day,” said Sutter, who was sporting a few stitches on his upper lip after the game, of the atmosphere surrounding the team now as opposed to one month ago. “Before we were trying to find things to be positive about and find reasons to have fun at the rink. No one likes losing. Now we get to work hard, have fun and push ourselves to be better every day, and that’s the fun part of hockey.”
The Checkers continue their 10-game home stand, which they’ve started with a record of 5-2-0, with a rematch against Norfolk this Thursday. Having felt fortunate to win this game, they won’t want to leave anything to chance moving forward.
“You look back at some of the games we probably should have won at didn’t, and over the course of the season it all works out, it seems like,” said Daniels. “Maybe it’s the turn we need, but I know that come Thursday night that’s going to be a better team, a lot fresher team, and we’ve got to be better.”
NOTES: Prior to the current three-game winning streak, the Checkers had won consecutive games only once this season on Oct. 4 and 5 … Philippe Cornet’s assist on Schmitz’s goal was his 100th AHL point and marked the seventh consecutive game in which the Checkers have scored a power-play goal (9-for-27; 33.3 percent) … Shugg’s seventh goal of the season tied his AHL career high set last season … Muse has been in goal for each of the Checkers’ last nine victories dating back to Oct. 25 … The Checkers entered the game having played a league-low two overtime games, while Norfolk was tied for most in the league with 10 … Defenseman Austin Levi made his AHL debut after the Checkers recalled him from ECHL Florida on Saturday … Forwards Sean Dolan and Jared Staal and defensemen Danny Biega and Rasmus Rissanen all missed the game due to injury.