CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For the second consecutive game, the Checkers did just about everything they could to win with a depleted lineup. For the second consecutive game, they fell just short.
After leading 1-0 late in the second period on Wednesday, Charlotte gave up three goals to Norfolk in a seven-minute span en route to an eventual 3-2 loss to the Admirals at Time Warner Cable Arena. Matt Marquardt and Brett Sutter had the goals, while John Muse made a season-high 35 saves in goal.
The Checkers, who lost three players to injury in the first period of Sunday’s 5-2 loss to Houston, will now carry a two-game losing streak into an important two-game set with Texas starting Friday. They also now lead Norfolk by just one point in the standings for the GEICO Challenge Cup, with the trophy set to be up for grabs in the eighth and final meeting between the two regional rivals in Charlotte on March 26.
Following Wednesday’s game, the Checkers, who had to piece together a lineup cable of filling in for nine injured players in recent days, could find no fault with their effort.
“The effort was there,” said Marquardt. “It’s never easy to lose and you never accept it, but it’s another thing when the effort isn’t there. As a collective unit we battled really hard.”
“If we keep playing like that, eventually we’ll start winning some games here,” said coach Jeff Daniels.
That was true from the outset, with the Checkers taking a 1-0 lead on Marquardt’s goal, his second as a Checker and second in as many games, just past the midway point of the first period. The goal came when he collected the rebound of a shot by linemate Casey Pierro-Zabotel, one of three players making his Checkers debut, and stuffed it past former Carolina Hurricanes prospect Frederik Andersen.
From there, the Checkers continued to play well at both ends, including several near-misses of good scoring chances and a strong showing on a lengthy two-man disadvantage, but slipped on John Mitchell’s goal with one minute remaining in the second period and two more by Nate Guenin and Mitchell in the first six minutes of period three, putting the Checkers in a 3-1 hole.
“It’s just breakdowns and things we’ll look at on video,” said Daniels. “In our situation, those are mistakes you can’t be making.”
Brett Sutter’s goal, his 14th of the season that set a new career high, provided a quick response, but the Checkers were unable to break through for the tying goal, despite a great opportunity on a 6-on-4 power play with Muse pulled for an extra attacker for the final minute.
Along with Pierro-Zabotel, the ECHL’s scoring leader who was playing his first AHL contest since the 2009-10 season, forward C.J. Severyn and defenseman Danny Biega also played their first games for Charlotte. Biega’s debut lasted only three shifts, as the Hurricanes prospect who signed his first professional contract earlier in the day suffered an injury in the first period and did not return.
The play in question ended up being a scary incident, as Biega seemed woozy after taking a hard hit behind the net and struggled to keep up with the pace of play before being escorted off the ice.
“It’s unfortunate,” said Daniels. “He was nervous and excited to turn pro and ended up getting hurt early in the game.”
“I feel bad,” said defenseman Justin Krueger. “Norfolk is one of the toughest, biggest teams we play against, and it was tough for him to adjust to that. I don’t think he saw the guy coming, but hopefully he gets well soon.”
Daniels did not have a definitive update on Biega after the game, saying that the team would reevaluate the 21-year-old, who just completed his collegiate career at Harvard, tomorrow.
For those who did complete the game, reviews were positive.
“One thing is that they all want to make a statement and stay in our lineup, so they’re bringing that energy every night,” said Daniels.
“Those players have all been picking things up really quick,” said Krueger of the 12 players in the Checkers’ lineup who started the season in the ECHL or amateur ranks. “They’ve been contributing both offensively and defensively and they all work hard. There’s a lot of good signs from those guys, and I feel like we’re heading in the right direction.”
The Checkers, who may need to bring in yet another player to compensate for the loss of Biega, will now have to regroup and hope that their strong efforts turn into better results against Texas, who they trail by just one point in the South Division with five meetings included in Charlotte’s last 15 games.
Having not faced Texas since the Stars overtook them for the division lead last month, the upcoming match-ups are ones the Checkers have been anticipating.
“I shouldn’t have to tell them anything,” said Daniels of his message to his team heading into this weekend. “We have a standings board in there and they know where we’re at.”
NOTES: Marquardt’s two-game goal streak is the third of his AHL career … Pierro-Zabotel’s assist was his first AHL point since Jan. 31, 2010 … Sutter’s previous career high of 13 goals was set last season … Sutter took a game-high six shots on goal … Forwards Zac Dalpe, Sean Dolan, A.J. Jenks, Andreas Nodl, Luke Pither, Jerome Samson and Justin Shugg and defensemen Marc-Andre Gragnani and Michal Jordan missed the game due to injury.