CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- As the Checkers continue to gear up for the Calder Cup Playoffs, Thursday’s game against Texas provided a nice preview.
Courtesy of Zach Boychuk’s power-play goal with 1:41 to play in regulation, the Checkers prevailed 4-3 in a back-and-forth battle between two of the Western Conference’s top teams at Time Warner Cable Arena. Rob Madore shook off two goals against early in the second period to tie his career high with 44 saves, while Matt Beca, Bobby Raymond and Jeremy Welsh also scored for Charlotte.
The Checkers are now within five points of Texas for the South Division lead, with the final meeting between the two clubs set to take place Friday. With five games remaining, Charlotte has now surpassed its point total from all of last season, when it missed the postseason cut on the final day.
Having been disappointed with their intensity as recently as last week, the Checkers had no such issues on Thursday.
“There’s a lot on the line,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “We’re trying to get into the playoff and they’re trying to get to the top of the conference. I thought it was a playoff-type game and a hard-fought win.”
“It’s fun to play these games,” said Welsh, who picked up a goal and assist, doubling his offensive total from his previous 12 games. “You can’t let up on your intensity for a second or they capitalize. It’s fun to challenge yourself.”
It was a tale of two very different periods to start the game, with the Checkers taking 17 shots in the first period and a 1-0 lead through Beca, a healthy scratch in the team’s last game, who took a pass from Brett Sutter in the slot after the latter had forced a turnover on the forecheck against former Carolina Hurricane Mike Commodore.
Things would quickly unravel in the second, with the Stars taking their first lead just 1:53 into the period on goals by Colton Sceviour, who finished a wraparound chance, and Brett Ritchie, who discovered a loose puck in the crease that Madore thought he had covered.
“They were horrible goals,” said Madore, who was playing in just his seventh career game at the AHL level. “They were the kind that can cost the team games.”
However, things changed just as quickly for the rookie, one of three goalies vying to be the team’s playoff starter, as he made several key stops on an ensuing Texas power play that could have sent things spiraling out of control. Those saves paid off in short order, with Raymond beating Texas’ Jack Campbell to score his fourth of the season just 12 seconds after the penalty to Jared Staal expired.
“To his credit, he really bounced back,” said Daniels of Madore, who faced 20 shots in the second period. “It could have easily been 3-1 or 4-1 if not for Rob making some big saves.”
“I think he felt bad about those two squeakers,” said Welsh. “He stopped some sure goals on that power play, and those are just like scoring a goal yourself.”
Madore, who is now 4-2-0 with a 1.95 goals-against average and .947 save percentage since making his Checkers debut on March 21, seemed to take the goals that went against him in stride. He wasn’t even particularly pleased about Cameron Gaunce’s third-period goal that tied the score at 3-3 with eight minutes left in regulation, just 43 seconds Welsh had given the Checkers the lead with a breakaway deke against Campbell, even though his team made a case for goaltender interference at the time.
“During the game you can’t think about it,” said Madore. “If I had time to go back and watch them, I would have been very upset with myself.
“My job is to give the team a chance to win, and tonight they picked me up.”
In Madore’s six starts, he has seen 40 or more shots in three of those, all victories.
“I feel like I should start working for a tire company to promote rubber, because I see a lot of it,” he said.
With the quick exchange of goals by Welsh and Gaunce looking like it would result in the teams going to overtime for the fourth time in seven meetings this season, the Checkers got their second power-play of the game on a Mike Hedden tripping call with 2:32 remaining. Two of the team’s most skilled players made no mistake, with Chris Terry finding Boychuk for a back-door finish through traffic to give the team its third win in as many meetings with Texas after going winless in the first four.
Boychuk’s goal was his seventh-game winner of the season, pulling him within one of Terry for the team and league lead.
Charlotte will now get ready to play its final home game of the season against the Stars on Friday, continuing a three-in-three set that concludes Saturday in Chicago. Should the team win all three games, it would clinch a playoff spot for the first time in two seasons.
NOTES: Defenseman Beau Schmitz left the game due to injury and did not return. No update on his condition was immediately available … With a goal and an assist, Raymond recorded his second multi-point game of the season and first since Jan. 26 … Boychuk’s goal was his 20th of the season, putting him one short of last season’s total and two short of his career high … The Checkers’ 47 shots allowed tied their season high, as did their 20 shots allowed in the second period … Forward Brock McGinn made his professional debut for Charlotte, while defenseman Brendon Nash made his Checkers debut … The Checkers improved to 6-0-1 in the first game of a three-in-three set … Sutter played his 400th career AHL game, while Terry played his 300th … Forward Brendan Woods, defenseman Eric Baier and goaltender Mike Murphy were healthy scratches.