The Checkers’ season ended earlier than they wanted it to, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying.
Despite out-shooting Oklahoma City by a 51-28 margin, tying their second-highest shot total of the entire season, the Checkers fell by a 6-2 score in the winner-take-all Game 5 of their first-round playoff series.
The loss marked the second consecutive night that Charlotte was unable to put away the Barons, who won two of the last three games at Time Warner Cable Arena, including an 8-1 victory on Friday.
“There was no quit,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “We put up 51 shots and couldn’t find the back of the net.”
“I don’t think there was any quit in our game for sure,” agreed captain Brett Sutter. “It’s tough to put into words right now. It’s pretty disappointing.”
Veteran goaltender Yann Danis upstaged Charlotte rookie Rob Madore in the final game of the series, with Madore making an early exit for the second game in a row after allowing four goals on 17 shots midway through the second period. John Muse then entered the game for the first time this series and made 11 saves on 12 Oklahoma City attempts.
Danis, who gave up six goals in Charlotte’s Game 3 victory on Wednesday that put the Checkers within striking distance of the second round, stopped 73 of 76 shots over the series’ final two games.
“I’m assuming he was the game’s first star, and he earned it,” said Daniels, who declined to discuss individual performances from his own team.
The Barons didn’t pull away until the second period, when Teemu Hartikainen broke a 2-2 tie with a wrist shot from the right circle. Less than two minutes later, Oklahoma City captain Josh Green scored on a wraparound, with his shot hitting Madore in the left pad before squirting into the net.
That prompted Daniels to make his goaltending change, with Muse, who had only recently resumed skating after an injury that kept him out of the lineup for the first four games of the series, getting beat by Toni Rajala on a two-on-one break less than five minutes after he entered the game.
While clearly on their heels at that point, Charlotte out-shot the Barons 19-7 in the third period but was unable to beat Danis, who was consistently well-positioned and kept rebound chances to a minimum.
“We’ve got to keep our heads help up high,” said Checkers forward Zach Boychuk, who led the team in playoff scoring with six points but saw his seven-game point streak come to an end on Saturday. “It was a good game and it could have gone either way. We didn’t bear down on our chances and their goalie played well.”
The Checkers were happy with their start and their ability to put Friday’s loss, the worst in team history, behind them. They got the first goal when Nicolas Blanchard intercepted an outlet pass by Barons defenseman Andrew Hotham and fed Riley Nash in the slot for a quick strike just prior to the 11-minute mark. When the Barons fired back with two in 40 seconds soon after to test the Checkers’ resolve, the home team answered when Bobby Raymond took a back-door pass from Brody Sutter just after a Charlotte power play had expired to tie the game.
“I thought we came out great and pushed the pace,” said Brett Sutter.
“It could have been our best 20,” said Daniels, referring to the opening period. “We put (Friday’s) game behind us and started the right way.”
The aftermath of the game found the Checkers in various stages of reflection concerning their season. Daniels preferred to let things sink in a little more before making any larger evaluations, while at least two of his players pointed to one particular point in the series as a crossroads where things began to turn.
“In Game 2 (in Oklahoma City) when we build a 2-0 lead and let it slip – in the playoffs every game is so big,” said Sutter. “We could have come home two games up, but that’s too late now.”
“It would have been very helpful if we could have kept pushing in that second game,” said Boychuk. “If we had won it, it would have been a series changer.”
The Checkers are now set to meet one final time on Monday morning before going their separate ways for the offseason. They’ll have more time to refine their thoughts on the season as a whole once the sting wears off at least to some degree, but some already had positives in mind.
“It wasn’t easy,” said Boychuk, referring to what will surely be one of the most topsy-turvy seasons anyone associated with the Checkers will ever experience. “We had a lot of injuries and lost a lot of guys to the NHL but we found a way to keep winning. That’s a testament to the coaches, the call-ups and the vets who stuck it out right to the finish. We had to find a way to learn to play together, and we did that.”
On the other hand, that fight through adversity is now over, with any hopes that it created now dashed.
“I thought we had a good thing here,” said Sutter. “We had a strong belief in each other. Right now it’s shock and disappointment.”