HOUSTON -- With goal scoring hard to come by in recent weeks, overcoming a tough start was always going to be a difficult task.
The Checkers fell behind 3-0 in the first period and weren’t able to recover in an eventual 4-1 loss to Houston on Thursday. Chris Terry scored his 24th goal of the season to claw one back in the second period and Rob Madore stopped all 16 shots he faced after making his AHL debut in relief of John Muse, who departed after allowing three goals on 10 shots in the first period.
The loss decreased the distance between the fourth-seeded Checkers (77 points) and the fifth-seeded Aeros (72) in the Western Conference playoff race. It also concluded the eight-game season series between the two South Division rivals, with the Checkers holding a 5-2-1 record.
Charlotte’s two-game road trip continues against the league-leading Texas Stars on Saturday before the team returns home to play its final seven home games of the season in consecutive order.
Wednesday’s game was one that may have seen its turning point come quite early, with the Checkers missing a 30-second, two-man advantage chance midway through the first period. While they got good looks against Houston goalie Darcy Kuemper (26 saves), they cut the five-on-four portion of the power play short when Terry took a hooking penalty trying to break up an odd-man rush the other way.
With the next two minutes, Houston would score twice – first on Marco Scandella’s four-on-four goal, a great shot over Muse’s shoulder as he fell to the ice, and then on Zack Phillips’ power-play goal on a rebound – to take a 2-0 lead. On another power play five minutes later, it was 3-0 for the home team as Aeros scoring leader Justin Fontaine tucked home a loose puck that bounced off Muse from of a long shot from the point, ending the Checkers’ starter’s evening.
The outburst marked the first time the Checkers had allowed multiple power-play goals in the same game since Feb. 14, a span of 14 contests. They entered the game tied for the league’s second-best penalty kill at 86.8 percent, having killed off 45 of their last 47 shorthanded situations.
The Aeros’ first two goals, scored 52 seconds apart, also marked the third consecutive game in which the Checkers have allowed two goals within 140 seconds of each other – something that occurred four times in their recent two-game set with Texas.
Despite the deficit, the Checkers had a handful of good scoring chances over the remainder of the game but were only able to break through once on Terry’s power-play goal in the second period. The goal, which came on a blast from the right point, changed directions on its way in and was at one point credited to David Rutherford before switching back to Terry.
The goal was the second in as many games for the Checkers’ scoring leader, who now has sole possession of 10th place in terms of AHL goal scoring. He finished the game with a game-high seven shots, including a shorthanded breakaway attempt that was stopped by Kuemper in the third period.
After the Checkers peppered Kuemper, who rejoined the Aeros from the NHL’s Minnesota Wild last week, late in a third period that saw them win the shots battle 8-2, Houston’s Carson McMillan added an empty-net goal with 32 seconds remaining to seal the victory.
Madore, a rookie out of the University of Vermont who began the season at the AHL level, had begun eight consecutive games as the Checkers’ backup since Justin Peters joined Carolina. He made a string of good saves to stabilize his team in the second period and is now perfect as an AHL goaltender.
He and Muse now have something in common, with Muse stopping all 24 shots he faced in relief of Mike Murphy during his AHL debut with Charlotte on Dec. 16 of last season.
Heading into Saturday’s game against Texas, the first of three remaining meetings between the two teams, the Checkers will await word of potentially more roster turnover caused by injuries to former Checkers Bobby Sanguinetti and Dan Ellis during their game. The Hurricanes are off until Tuesday, which could delay the need for any transactions that may arise.
NOTES: Terry’s 24 goals are three more than any Checker scored last season … Defenseman Eric Baier made his Checkers debut after signing a professional tryout contract with the club earlier in the day to replace Brett Bellemore, who made his NHL debut with Carolina on Thursday. He posted an even plus/minus rating with two penalty minutes … Brett Sutter’s three-game point streak (1g, 4a) came to an end … Charlotte fell to 20-9-4 on the road … The Checkers were playing without 11 players due to injury.