If they have more weekends like this, the Checkers will remove much of the drama from their late-season playoff push.
In a crucial game against one of the teams chasing them in the Western Conference, Charlotte topped Peoria 4-1 to conclude a weekend sweep that began one night earlier in Grand Rapids. Having begun the weekend in a three-way tie for eighth place, the Checkers, who won consecutive games for the first time since Feb. 4-10, could find themselves in of fifth when they wake up on Sunday.
Brett Sutter scored two goals, including a late empty-netter, and added an assist to lead the way against the Rivermen, while Zac Dalpe and Chris Durno also found the back of the net in support of Mike Murphy’s 20-save effort. Additionally, forward Chris Terry recorded two assists to extend his point streak to six games (3g, 6a) as the Checkers improved to 5-2-0 against their Midwest Division rival this season.
The only potential blemish on a night that saw the Checkers open a three-point lead on Peoria is the status of forward A.J. Jenks, who left the game just 2:22 into the game after a collision with Rivermen captain Adam Cracknell. Cracknell, who received a two-game suspension for elbowing Checkers forward Sean Dolan in the head last Wednesday, received a match penalty and an ejection for checking to the head. Dolan, who fought Cracknell following the play, received a 10-minute misconduct, while officials tossed Checkers defenseman Brett Bellmore for leaving the bench to participate in the altercation.
Jenks’ injury could come as a further blow to a Charlotte team that was already playing without forwards Nicolas Blanchard, who is out indefinitely following a hard collision of his own in Hershey last week, and Justin Soryal, who is out for the season with a knee injury.
The fallout of that early incident may have had some impact on the flow of the game, as it took both teams some time to get going. After the Rivermen’s Stefan Della Rovere took a holding penalty during the five-minute major to Cracknell, the Checkers had a two-minute, five-on-three power play that produced little pressure. Likewise, it took 12 minutes for Peoria to take its first shot against Murphy.
Charlotte would end up getting a handful of scoring chances, as it hit four posts and missed three breakaways before Zac Dalpe finally broke through to tie the game at 1-1 with three and a half minutes remaining in the second period.
As had been the case in a prolonged scoring slump that plagued the Checkers for the bulk of March, that initial breakthrough, a shot from the right circle that beat goalie Jake Allen to the short side, was all it would take to get things going. Sutter would score his first on a rebound of a Jerome Samson shot just 56 seconds later to send the Checkers to the second intermission with their first lead of the night.
Though the Checkers then had the momentum that they would not relinquish, it took a game-changing save by Murphy to keep it that way. Early in the third period, NHL veteran Jonathan Cheechoo attempted to go around a sprawled Murphy and score into the empty net, but Murphy instead came up with an unexpected glove save. Cheechoo, who has six goals in his last seven games, opened the scoring on a slap shot from the top of the circles midway through the second period.
With the teams exchanging power plays throughout the third period, Durno gave his team some breathing room by banking a shot in off Allen’s pads from in close. Though he did not earn an assist on that particular play, the goal was set up by Samson, who kept the forecheck going during a prolonged shift.
Sutter would then add an empty-net goal, sealing the victory and allowing him to tie his career highs of two goals and three points.
The Checkers return to Charlotte to continue a busy portion of their schedule that will see them play their remaining eight games in a 13-day stretch. They begin a four-game home stand with Tuesday’s game against Milwaukee and will conclude their season with a four-game road trip that will take them through Peoria one final time on April 13.
NOTES: Charlotte and Peoria met for the third time in two weeks. Charlotte’s win in the previous meeting last Wednesday started the Rivermen’s current five-game losing streak … Sutter finished the month of March with 10 points (3g, 7a) in 12 games. That ties January of 2011 for his most productive month as a Checker … The Checkers finished the night 0-6 on the power play, ending a five-game streak of scoring at least one power-play goal … Defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti missed his second consecutive game with an upper-body injury … Allen, who started Peoria’s shootout loss to Rockford on Friday, made his 15th straight start.