Though they gave their best effort against the AHL’s top team, the Checkers’ depleted lineup may have finally caught up to them.
Having stormed out to a 2-0 first-period lead against Hershey at Time Warner Cable Arena on Thursday, the Checkers, who entered the game missing seven players due to injury and NHL recall and lost two more during this particular contest, eventually fell 4-3 to the Hershey Bears. Zach Boychuk scored a late power-play goal to set up an exciting finish, adding to earlier goals by teammates Matt Pistilli and Chris Terry.
The loss was the Checkers’ second in as many nights to their old playoff rival, with the Bears taking a 3-2 shootout victory on Wednesday. However, in both games, coach Jeff Daniels and his players could find no fault in the team’s effort.
“We played hard, but against a team like that you almost have to be perfect,” said Daniels. “We made a few mistakes.”
“They’ve got a bunch of veteran guys on that team, and if you give them an inch of open space they’re going to take advantage,” said Pistilli, who scored his eighth goal of the season when he danced around a defender and put a backhand shot on net that went off a defender’s skate and into the net with 27 seconds left in the first period.
Though the Checkers were able to dress a full lineup of 20 players, one more than they could muster on Wednesday, many of the team’s key players were missing. Things only became more difficult when Drayson Bowman left the game with an injury near the end of the third period and did not return.
“We’re limited up front right now, but we’ve got to make do with what we have,” said Daniels.
Nicolas Blanchard also exited the game with just over two minutes remaining, though that play would end of giving the Checkers a real chance to tie the game. Hershey’s Matthew Ford earned a five-minute major and a game misconduct for his board on Blanchard that left the Checkers’ alternate captain bloodied, with Boychuk taking advantage on a rebound goal with 1:07 left on the clock.
The Checkers stayed on the man advantage for the duration of the game, but couldn’t get a shot through to goaltender Braden Holtby to find the late equalizer.
“We had some good chances, and we’ve just got to bury those,” said Pistilli. “Our power play has to step up, because we didn’t have our best effort there tonight. It was maybe why we lost the game.”
Boychuk’s goal, in which he backhanded a loose puck past Holtby, was the Checkers’ only power-play tally during the two-game set with Hershey as they finished 1-for-8 (12.5 percent). Though that streak coincides with the recall of Jerome Samson, who leads the Checkers and ranks tied for seventh in the league with 8 power-play goals, the Checkers weren't relying on that fact.
“I know we’re missing a lot of guys up front, but in no way is that an excuse,” said Pistilli. “If we lost the game, it’s our problem.”
If the Checkers struggled on the man advantage up until Boychuk’s goal, Hershey experience no such issues in their two games against Charlotte or at any point earlier in the season, for that matter. The Bears’ 2-for-5 performance on Thursday improved their season total to 31.8 percent, far and away the best mark in the league.
Their two power play goals were the ones that tied the game at 2-2, starting a run of four unanswered goals that would put the game out of reach. The first came when Ryan Potulny finished off a feed from Chris Bourque just as a four-on-three advantage turned into a more conventional five-on-four, while the second occurred when former Checker Jacob Micflikier put home a back-door tap-in of a great feed by AHL scoring leader Keith Aucoin.
“They just get it into the zone and move it quickly,” said Checkers defenseman Justin Krueger. “They also fake a lot of shots, which makes it really hard for our goalie.”
Potulny would score his second of the game just 53 seconds after Micflikier’s tally on a turnaround shot from the slot to give his team its first lead of the game. Both Potulny (2g, 1a) and Aucoin (3a) finished with 3-point nights for Hershey. Aucoin extended his point streak to 13 games, the longest by any AHL player this season.
Boyd Kane then scored the would-be winner with just over five minutes left on a two-on-one break with Aucoin.
The Checkers will now take a much-needed day off before returning to practice Saturday in advance of two home games against Grand Rapids that begin Sunday. With any luck, they’ll head into those games as a much healthier team.
“A lot is happening right now, and we’ve just got to weather the storm,” said Daniels.
NOTES: Charlotte goalie Mike Murphy finished with 24 saves … The Checkers had just 14 shots through the first two periods, tying a season low … Forward Jared Staal played for Charlotte after missing Wednesday’s game with an illness … Defenseman Chris Murray, recalled from ECHL Florida earlier in the day, played his first game for Charlotte since Dec. 9 … Chris Durno, Riley Nash, Mathieu Roy and Justin Shugg missed the game due to injury, with Justin Peters, Jerome Samson and Brett Sutter on recall with the Carolina Hurricanes … Aucoin, a former Carolina Hurricane, has 25 points (3g, 22a) during his 13-game streak … Fans named Nicolas Blanchard winner of the Roll up Your Sleeves Hardest Worker of the Game Award.