With the pressure building during a slump that had seen them drop back into an ever-tightening playoff race, the Checkers finally got the performance they desperately needed.
After producing just four goals during a three-game losing streak, the Checkers’ offense exploded in a 6-2 win over the Midwest Division rival Peoria Rivermen in Charlotte on Wednesday. Zach Boychuk scored twice on beautiful setups from new linemate Evgenii Dadonov in the third period to lead the way, while Mike Murphy made 26 saves as his team finished with a 46-28 advantage in shots.
The convincing victory came one night after a 5-2 loss to the same Peoria team – a setback so disappointing that it resulted in a closed-door meeting among frustrated players.
“After our meeting last night we talked about everyone working together, and that’s the way we can play,” said Murphy. “It wasn’t a fluky win, and we worked hard every single minute of that game. It feels great.”
With the win, the Checkers got back to within a point of Peoria while retaining their playoff position. Had they lost, unfavorable results elsewhere could have dropped them out of the top eight in the Western Conference.
“If you look at the standings, it would have been pretty disappointing if we had lost that game,” said Boychuk.
Though the result was nearly the complete opposite of the team’s first meeting on Tuesday, there were similarities within. The final shot total was similarly lopsided in favor of the home team, with the important distinction of the Checkers capitalizing on their many chances – often in highlight-reel fashion – rather than getting frustrated at their lack of finishing touch and the heroics of goalie Jake Allen.
That change in attitude was evident in the way the Checkers came out for the second period after taking nothing away from an initial frame that saw them out-shoot the Rivermen 15-5. They went on to score four times in the first 10 minutes of the second period, making it their most successful period of the season.
“When you have a fragile team and you’re doing a lot of the right things and aren’t getting rewarded for it, you can go one of two ways,” said coach Jeff Daniels.
Clearly, the Checkers chose the right path, beginning with veteran Chris Durno’s first goal since Dec. 4 – a tap-in of a loose puck after Brett Sutter lost control on a breakaway. If that goal was a tad unorthodox, the next two – a nifty move around a defenseman and an even better shot from Riley Nash, followed by a great individual effort to beat three defensemen and then the goalie by Chris Terry – were much more impressive in their execution.
Matthew Pistilli would add a fourth on the power play to complete the Checkers’ surge. Though he would finish the period, Allen, who had allowed just three goals in his last three games, gave way to backup Alex Stalock to start the third.
“It was good to see a few guys get the monkey off their backs,” said Daniels.
The offensive show would continue into the third period through a more conventional source, with Boychuk recording his team-leading fifth multi-goal game of the season in between strikes by Peoria’s Shaun Heshka and Chris Bruton. Boychuk finished the night with five goals in his last four games – a stretch that has seen him hit 19 on the season to take the team lead from Jerome Samson.
“They’re starting to go in,” said Boychuk. “It’s been a bit of a streaky season for me. I’ve seemed to get a pile of goals and then go a few games without scoring, but it’s nice to have that confidence when you get one it seems like you’re getting another one.”
Boychuk’s first goal came on a no-look, behind-the-back pass from Dadonov, while the second was the result of a give-and-go between the two players. Daniels paired Boychuk and Dadonov together as part of sweeping changes to his lines prior to the game, and at least for the time being, it seems as though it will stick.
“He’s a pass-first kind of guy, and right now I’m a shooter,” said Boychuk of Dadonov, who has just one goal – an empty-net tally on Jan. 24 - since joining the Checkers two months ago. “Dads is still looking for that first real goal and I was trying to find him but he passed it back (on the second). I wasn’t really even ready for it.”
“They’re two skilled players, and it was exciting to watch,” said Murphy.
The Checkers hope that chemistry will be just one of many holdovers they take with them as they head into the final 12 games of their season. For now, it seems as though their confidence, which was perhaps at an all-time low just 24 hours earlier, is back where it needs to be.
“The biggest part about that win is that you can see when we’re all working together what we can accomplish if we believe in ourselves,” said Murphy.
NOTES: Charlotte improved to 4-2-0 against Peoria this season with two games left to play … The Checkers’ snapped Peoria’s five-game winning streak … Referees ejected Rivermen forward Patrick O’Sullivan, a former Carolina Hurricane, for abuse of officials at the end of the second period. O’Sullivan collected a total of 28 penalty minutes, six more than he had all season entering the game … Peoria captain Adam Cracknell missed the game after picking up a two-game suspension for elbowing Sean Dolan on Tuesday … Forward Justin Shugg and defenseman Brandon Gentile were healthy scratches for Charlotte … Fans named Murphy winner of the Roll up Your Sleeves Hardest Worker of the Game Award.