The Checkers got the initial boost they were looking for in a rare February home game, but in the end, the schedule may have taken its toll.
Charlotte jumped out to a 17-8 shot advantage in a well-played first period but couldn’t sustain that momentum for the rest of Sunday’s game, dropping a 3-1 decision against the Norfolk Admirals at Time Warner Cable Arena. Defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti scored with 1:43 left in the third period to get the Checkers back within a goal, but the visitors’ Pierre-Cedric Labrie restored the two-goal lead with an empty-net tally.
The game marked the first back-to-back regulation losses for the Checkers in nearly two months, as they ended a four-game slide on Dec. 15. It also concluded a set of three games in three days that began with Friday’s 2-1 overtime win in Milwaukee and Saturday’s 5-2 loss in Peoria.
"In the first period we had (17) shots on net and maybe got away from it in the second period," said Checkers forward Zac Dalpe. "We can't use the weekend as an excuse because that's the way this league is with travel, it's going to be tough."
Norfolk was completing a three-in-three weekend of its own, having swept a weekend that began with two home games against Adirondack before heading to Charlotte.
"There's no excuses because we had the same travel," said Sanguinetti. "I think the effort was there for us tonight. We worked hard and had a lot of good chances and just couldn't get their goalie figured out. He stood on his head."
Norfolk’s Jaroslav Janus, who was 1-2-0 with a 3.29 goals-against average and .894 save percentage against the Checkers coming into the game, stopped 33 shots before Sanguinetti broke up his shutout bid. Rookie John Muse made 25 saves for the Checkers but saw his AHL record fall to 8-2-0 this season.
With the win, Norfolk got back to within a point of Charlotte in the standings for the GEICO Challenge Cup, which will be awarded to the team with the best head-to-head record at the conclusion of the eight-game season series. Had they recorded a regulation victory, the Checkers could have clinched the inaugural award with two games to spare.
It looked as though Janus was going to become the fourth goalie to shut out Charlotte this season until Sanguinetti, whose team-record, 11-game point streak was halted just last night, beat him with a shot from the point on the Checkers’ fifth power play. Zach Boychuk, who broke a 10-game goal drought on Saturday, recorded the primary assist, with Muse earning the first helper of his professional career.
The goal continued a trend of late-period strikes, with all four goals coming with less than 1:53 left in each period. Despite the Checkers’ early onslaught, Admirals defenseman Evan Oberg got on the board first as the puck squirted out of a goalmouth scramble and into his path as he skated in from the left point.
Earlier in the period, Charlotte’s Evgenii Dadonov had appeared to give his team the lead, but officials ruled that a Norfolk defenseman pulled his slow-trickling shot that was partially blocked by Janus off the goal line before it crossed completely.
In the second, rookie Cory Conacher scored his AHL-best 28th goal of the season to put his team up two on a turnover in the Checkers’ zone. That turnover was forced by linemate Trevor Smith, who found Conacher for a one-time shot that Muse initially saved before Conacher deposited his own rebound.
Having played their previous four games on the road heading into Sunday’s game, the Checkers now embark on a three-game swing through Peoria and Chicago as part of another three-in-three set next weekend. They return home for a back-to-back set against the league-leading Oklahoma City Barons starting Feb. 24.
NOTES: The loss ended the Checkers three-game winning streak against Norfolk, making them 3-2-1 in the season series … Dalpe’s third-period fight that preceded Sanguinetti’s goal was the second of his professional career, with the other coming last season, also against Norfolk … Drayson Bowman was back in the lineup for Charlotte after Carolina reassigned him earlier in the day. The Canes simultaneously recalled Checkers’ leading goal scorer Jerome Samson … Forwards Chris Durno and Riley Nash, defenseman Chris Murray and goalie Mike Murphy sat out due to injury, while defenseman Joe Sova was a healthy scratch.