ROSEMONT, Ill – As a relatively rested group playing against a team playing its third game in three nights, the Checkers weren’t able to take advantage of a fortuitous setup.
Despite an impressive 36-save performance from Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Anton Khudobin, who made his Checkers debut on a conditioning stint, the Chicago Wolves prevailed by a 4-3 score on Sunday. Aaron Palushaj (2g, 1a) and Nicolas Blanchard (3a) each had three points for Charlotte, which also got a goal from Justin Shugg and fell to 1-1-0 on its current three-game road trip.
The game concluded the four-game season series between the two clubs, with the Wolves winning each of the last three after Charlotte got things started with a 5-0 victory on Oct. 27. Chicago now has points in each of its last six games (5-0-1).
Off since a 3-2 win over Milwaukee on Friday, the Checkers never seemed to have the same amount of energy as Chicago, which had played games in Lake Erie on Friday and Saturday. Two of their goals – one by Michael Davies in the second period and another by Sebastian Wannstrom in the third – came as the result of long shifts in the Checkers’ zone in which they simply wore down a defense that couldn’t find a way to clear the zone.
Those goals and an opening Wolves tally in which Charlotte defenseman Austin Levi took a penalty to set up a 6-on-5 with goalie Jake Allen pulled for the extra attacker and then couldn’t intercept a back-door pass to Christian Hanson, spoiled an otherwise outstanding debut by Khudobin, who had not played a game at any level since suffering an ankle injury in Carolina on Oct. 13. Charlotte’s 40 shots allowed marked their second-highest total of the season.
Though he allowed Hanson’s goal on the Wolves’ first shot of the game, Khudobin, who started the season by winning each of his first two starts with Carolina prior to his injury, looked the part of an NHL goaltender. He gave the Checkers a good chance to win the game, as evidenced by his breakaway stop on Wannstrom, a sprawling pad save with the Wolves up 2-1 in the second period, that allowed Palushaj to tie the game one shift later.
For the most part, Khudobin could not have done much on Chicago’s goals, including Pat Cannone’s power-play strike that put the Wolves up 4-2 with five minutes remaining and ended up counting as the game winner. Khudobin, who otherwise displayed excellent rebound control despite not having played for over two months, had made two initial saves on Cannone before the Wolves forward capitalized on his third attempt with 4:19 remaining in regulation.
Coming into the game, Chicago had the AHL’s worst power-play at just 10.7 percent. Prior to Cannone’s goal, which came with Brett Sutter in the box for slashing, the Checkers had killed 17 consecutive penalties dating back to Dec. 15.
Khudobin, who entered the game with 156 games of AHL experience but had not played in the league since March 31, 2013, became the eighth goalie to play for the Checkers this season, extending a franchise record. However, goalies other than John Muse, who did not dress on Sunday, are a combined 2-10-1 this season, with Muse responsible for all 10 of the Checkers’ wins since Oct. 5.
With scoring leader Zach Boychuk in the NHL, Palushaj, who finished with a game-high six shots and a plus-3 rating, has been the Checkers’ most productive offensive player of late with 12 points (3g, 9a) in his last eight games. Sunday’s game was his second three-point night of the season and fourth multi-point game since Dec. 10.
Soon after Chicago took leads of 1-0 and 2-1, Palushaj had the answer, first with a nice finish of a cross-ice pass from Blanchard that found him alone in front of goal and then on a surprising goal through traffic coming off a shot from along the right wall and just inside the blue line. He also had a helper on Shugg’s goal, throwing a puck on net from the corner that bounced out to the slot to get the Checkers back within one with 1:35 remaining.
With the secondary assist on that goal that came with Khudobin on the bench for the extra attacker, Blanchard, a veteran of 434 career AHL contests, tied his career high for points in a single game, set once previously on Jan. 14, 2011.
The Checkers now depart to Rockford to conclude their road trip with a game against the IceHogs on Monday night. They then return home to face the Texas Stars on Thursday and Friday.
NOTES: Eight of the Checkers’ last 11 games were decided by one goal, with the Checkers posting a 6-2-0 record in those games … Palushaj’s two-goal game was his first since Jan. 13, 2012 … The Checkers, who entered the game ranked third in the AHL on the power play, missed a five-on-three opportunity in the third period and are 0-for-5 since Boychuk, who leads the league in power-play goals, left for the NHL … Charlotte is 2-7-0 when it does not score on the power play … Shugg’s eighth goal of the season marked a new career high … Mike Murphy backed up Khudobin with Muse sitting as a healthy extra. Forwards Sean Dolan and Jared Staal and defensemen Danny Biega and Rasmus Rissanen missed the game due to injury.