PEORIA, -- Down 3-0 with five minutes remaining, it would have been easy for the playoff-bound Checkers to pack it in and continue their road trip.
Their captain, Brett Sutter, had other ideas.
In exactly 5:49 of game time, Sutter scored two goals and two assists, including the overtime winner, to cap a hugely improbable comeback in Peoria on Tuesday. In danger of being shut out one minute, the Checkers now carry a five-game point streak (2-0-3) into their final two games of the season.
Sutter’s outburst tied the franchise record for most points in a single game, something he himself had achieved twice earlier this season. After starting the rally himself with a wraparound goal with 4:48 left in regulation, he had the primary helpers on goals by Justin Shugg and Zach Boychuk before doing the honors himself with a sharp-angle rocket just 1:01 into the extra session.
John Muse, making his second consecutive start in goal, made 25 saves.
Except for the final result, the comeback was eerily reminiscent of a Dec. 20 meeting between the two teams in Charlotte, in which Peoria’s Mike McKenna finally relented after a dominating performance. In that game, the Rivermen were up 4-0 with 10 minutes remaining, with the Checkers coming all the way back only to lose in the shootout.
McKenna, whose 50 saves that night are still tied for the most made by any goaltender in the AHL this season, was up to his old tricks on Tuesday as part of a 43-save showing. Goals by T.J. Hensick in the first period and Nathan Longpre in the second period looked as though they would be enough support, with Evgeny Grachev’s goal to give the Rivermen a 3-0 lead with 5:23 remaining seeming to put the game out of Charlotte’s reach.
A quick response by Sutter, who grabbed the puck in a goalmouth scramble before his finish 35 seconds later, did much more than spoil McKenna’s shutout bid.
Just after a Charlotte power play expired two minutes later, Shugg was in the crease to knock home the rebound of Sutter’s shot as he crashed the net with Muse pulled for the extra attacker. Thirty-one seconds after that, Sutter, who had drawn several players over to him along the wall, found a wide-open Boychuk in front of goal, who made a nice move to tie the game on his 21st goal of the season.
In overtime, it was Sutter who took a hard shot from a wide angle that hit the post, with a second or two of paused silence passing before the puck showed up inside the net and Charlotte’s celebrations ensued.
Chris Terry, the only Checker who has scored more points than Sutter in his breakout offensive season, assisted on three of the goals. Defenseman Bobby Raymond had two helpers.
In his sixth professional season, Sutter has easily beaten his career highs in all offensive categories. He now has 46 points (18g, 28a) this season, surpassing his previous career high of 29 (13g, 16a) from last season.
The two points from Peoria, combined with an Oklahoma City loss against Toronto, fulfilled the Checkers’ best-case scenario from Tuesday’s games in terms of clinching home ice advantage in the first round. Whether or not they are successful in that endeavor and their first-round opponent will not be known until later this week.
Charlotte now heads to Milwaukee to face the Admirals on Friday night before returning to Peoria to conclude their regular season on Saturday.
NOTES: Of the 13 four-point games in the Checkers’ three-year AHL history, seven were accomplished this season … Tuesday’s game marked the fourth time the Checkers have been to overtime in their last five outings, including three straight. Following a run of six consecutive wins, they had lost three in a row heading into Tuesday … The Checkers improved to 6-0-1 against Peoria this season and 12-2-1 all-time … Terry extended his road point streak to eight games (Feb. 22-April 16; 4g, 7a) and his overall point streak to four games (April 11-15; 1g, 5a) … Charlotte improved to 22-9-5 on the road this season … Defenseman Ryan Murphy made his AHL/Checkers debut on defense, while forward Brendan Woods made his professional debut at center … Forwards Matt Marquardt and Brock McGinn, defenseman Eric Baier and goaltender Mike Murphy were healthy scratches.