CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Not sure what to expect when injuries across the organization caused them to turn to a rookie who began the season as their fourth-string goaltender, the Checkers certainly won’t argue with the results.
In his second career start at the AHL level, Rob Madore made 37 saves to earn his second victory as the Checkers defeated Norfolk by a 3-1 score at Time Warner Cable Arena on Tuesday. Beau Schmitz, Casey Pierro-Zabotel and Zach Boychuk scored the goals for Charlotte, which climbed within four points of Texas for the South Division lead.
With the win, Charlotte won the GEICO Challenge Cup, awarded to the team with the most points at the end of their eight-game season series with Norfolk. The Checkers, who lost the inaugural competition last season, finished with a 5-3-0 record against their regional rivals from the Eastern Conference.
Madore, who started the season in the ECHL and served as the backup goaltender for his first seven games with Charlotte, has now stopped 96 of 99 shots in his one-week AHL career. In addition to Tuesday’s first-star performance, that included a 16-for-16 relief effort in his AHL debut on Thursday and a 43-save outing, the most by a Checkers goalie since the beginning of last season, against Texas on Saturday.
“He’s been real good,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “He competes so hard, and if you watch him in practice, he doesn’t quit on plays.”
“It’s the same game no matter what level you’re at,” said Madore, a 24-year-old University of Vermont product who had spent the majority of this season with Evansville and Florida in the ECHL. “The nice thing about being in Charlotte is how the forwards and defense are so committed to the backcheck and pressuring the shooter.”
Madore even emerged unscathed from a first-period penalty shot by Norfolk’s John Mitchell, which hit the post to his right. Asked if he had gotten a piece of the shot prior to that, he displayed what’s quickly becoming his trademark lighter side.
“Which answer do you want me to give?” he asked. “I could tell you ‘yes,’ but just don’t watch the replay.”
That penalty shot opportunity, the second the Checkers have allowed this season (neither of which resulted in a goal), came during a frantic first period. Aside from that attempt, the Checkers took two consecutive penalties that would have resulted in a brief five-on-three if not for a Norfolk penalty negating it, but ended up giving up the game’s first goal during a five-minute boarding major to Nicolas Blanchard.
That goal, in which Madore did very well to make the initial save but Brandon McMillan stabbed home the loose puck as he attempted to cover the short rebound, came with 34 seconds left in the major penalty to Blanchard.
At the end of 20 minutes, Norfolk was out-shooting the Checkers 17-3 and led 1-0 – a scoreline that Daniels said he was happy with, all things considered.
“We weren’t playing smart and were taking penalties that were the right calls,” he said. “We were lucky to get out of it down by just one goal.”
The second period was almost the exact opposite, with the Admirals taking three consecutive minor penalties, including approximately two minutes at five-on-three. The payoff didn’t come until the tail end of the sequence, when Schmitz, another rookie who had spent most of the season in the ECHL, fired home a rebound for his third goal of the season to tie the score.
“In the next 40 minutes we played smarter,” said Daniels, whose team out-shot Norfolk 32-21 over the remainder of the game. “Once we started to get pucks deep, we got rewarded.”
In a more conventional third period, Pierro-Zabotel, the ECHL’ s scoring leader at the time of signing a professional tryout contract with Charlotte on March 12, scored his first career AHL goal when he capitalized on a turnover and fired a shot from the left circle that beat goalie Frederik Andersen inside the far post.
With Madore holding the fort at the other end, it looked like that would be enough to seal the win, though Boychuk’s power-play goal with under four minutes remaining ensuring that the final moments would be drama free.
Since returning from a two-month, three-team journey through the NHL’s waiver system, Boychuk, the Checkers’ leading scorer upon his previous departure from the team in mid-January, has goals in each of his two games.
“It’s good to be back on this team, and it’s good to see the guys and contribute early,” he said. “It’s nice that we’ve been able to get big wins against some really good teams that are fighting the battle to get into the playoffs themselves.”
“He scores goals,” said Daniels of Boychuk. “He’s one of those guys where the puck seems to find him. We fanned on two or three shots, then the next thing you know the puck is on his stick and he knows what to do with it.”
Even after missing the lengthy two-man advantage, the Checkers finished the game 2-for-5 on the power play, marking the first time they had scored multiple goals in the same game since March 6 – also against Norfolk.
The victory began a seven-game home stand for Charlotte, which next faces San Antonio for back-to-back games on Friday and Saturday.
NOTES: Schmitz, who also assisted on Boychuk’s goal, was celebrating his 22nd birthday … Fellow defenseman Eric Baier turned 25 … David Marshall had two assists, his first multi-assist game at the AHL level, and fired a team-high six shots on goal … Zabotel now has two points (1g, 1a) in five games since joining the Checkers … There have been 11 penalty shots in the Checkers’ three AHL seasons (six for, five against) … All four goalies who have played for Charlotte this season – Madore, Dan Ellis, John Muse and Justin Peters – faced Norfolk at least once … Fans named Madore the Roll up Your Sleeves Hardest Worker of the Game.