The response was there, but response will only go so far.
Despite an improved effort from a disappointing loss to Milwaukee two days earlier, the Checkers nonetheless dropped Thursday’s rematch by a 4-2 score at Time Warner Cable Arena on Thursday. Zach Boychuk and Drayson Bowman scored for Charlotte, which was once again outdone by a three-goal, second-period burst by the visitors.
With the loss, the Checkers could potentially drop from sixth to seventh in the Western Conference pending later results. Additionally, Milwaukee is now firmly back among a group of teams vying for playoff position, as they now sit just a single point behind the Checkers with just six games remaining in the regular season.
“These were two very, very important games, and we didn’t come out on the right end,” said Boychuk.
Following the game, coach Jeff Daniels, who was highly critical of his team’s effort in a 4-0 shutout loss in the earlier meeting with the Admirals, said it “played hard” during its latest setback. The difference was a middle frame that saw Milwaukee break a 1-1 tie with goals by Teemu Laakso and Chris Mueller near the five and 10 minute marks.
Laakso’s effort was a slap shot from the right point that found its way past a pair of Checkers players and goalie Justin Peters, who stopped 19 of 23 shots. Mueller, the Admirals’ leading scorer, then finished a nice tic-tac-toe passing play involving Ryan Thang and Jonathon Blum that left him with a wide-open net in front.
Though Bowman would get one back for the Checkers by depositing a rebound left by Milwaukee netminder Atte Engren less than a minute after Mueller’s tally, Taylor Beck restored the two-goal advantage when he stuffed one through Peters’ legs to make it 4-2.
“We got away from our game and we got sloppy,” said Daniels. “We just weren’t sharp.”
Towards the end of the third period that had previously seen Milwaukee stifle any would-be scoring chances, the Checkers offense did come to life with a handful of good looks. Most notable among those was a backhand deke attempt by Chris Terry that he created with a burst of speed down the left wing, a Matthew Pistilli chance from in close and a redirection by Joe Sova that hit the post.
In each instance, the Checkers either just missed or Engren, pressed into starting duty due to a suspension to No. 1 goalie Jeremy Smith, made the save.
“We just couldn’t find that first one to get us going,” said Daniels, whose team had a 13-3 shot advantage in the third period.
“The worst thing to do is to start overpassing the puck and get cute.”
Though that’s been a problem at times during a stretch that has seen the Checkers post a record of 6-10-5 in their last 21 games, another emerging issue is the team’s ability to handle in-game adversity – something Boychuk believes became a factor when the Admirals’ first second-period goal erased a solid start.
“It all comes down to our emotions and our confidence,” said Boychuk, who became the first Checker to reach the 20-goal mark when he redirected a Sova slap pass from the point during a first-period power play. “Right now we’re kind of shutting down, and it’s something we have to fix right now.
“Before the game everyone was loose and ready to go. We had a good first period, and then it started to turn.”
When the Checkers conclude their four-game home stand with games against Abbotsford on Saturday and Sunday, it’s unclear as to whether or not they’ll have rookie center Sean Dolan at their disposal. When Dolan went to the locker room after a Zack Stortini hit appeared to catch him in the head, he became the fifth player to leave with an injury in the Checkers’ last six games, joining an infirmary roster that includes Nicolas Blanchard, A.J. Jenks, Rasmus Rissanen, Bobby Sanguinetti and Justin Soryal.
“Other guys have got to step up,” said Daniels.
In addition to being the last two home games on the Checkers’ regular-season schedule, the match-ups with Abbotsford could potentially be a first-round playoff preview should Charlotte be able to reclaim the fifth- or fourth-place spots it held earlier in the week. Through Thursday’s game, Abbotsford sat in fourth, just five points ahead of Charlotte with two more games played.
“We’ve got two more important games coming up, and those are now must-win games,” said Boychuk.
NOTES: The Checkers out-shot their opponents for the 14th time in their last 20 games … With six games to go, Boychuk is two goals away from matching his AHL career high … Besides Dolan, who played only one shift, Brett Bellemore was the only Checker that did not record a shot on goal … Bowman, reassigned from Carolina on Wednesday, had a game-high five shots … The Checkers allowed multiple power-play goals (two) for just the second time in their last 26 games … Defenseman Ryan Donald played for the Checkers after the team recalled him earlier in the day … Forward Brody Sutter was a healthy scratch … Fans named Brett Sutter winner of the Roll up Your Sleeves Hardest Worker of the Game Award.