Charlotte Checkers turn bleak Game 2 hopes into surprising victory in AHL playoffs

Charlotte Checkers Haydn Fleury discusses what the team needs improve on following their Game 1 loss to the Toronto Marlies in the Eastern Conference Finals at Bojangles’ Coliseum in Charlotte, NC on Friday, May 17, 2019. By

The Charlotte Checkers’ season certainly wasn’t over, but it was on life support.

The Checkers were down 3-0 to Toronto, looking at the prospect of losing the first two games in the Calder Cup Eastern Conference finals series – at home.

With the next three games scheduled for Toronto, it looked as if the Marlies were headed to their third straight American Hockey League playoff series sweep.

Then the rest of the game happened.

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The Checkers scored five straight goals, four in the final 12 1/2 minutes Saturday night, and thrilled a Bojangles Coliseum crowd of 7,119 with a 5-3 victory over the Marlies.

“It was pretty amazing,” Charlotte coach Mike Vellucci said after the game. “We’ve had a couple of comebacks in this building, and obviously that was the loudest. It was pretty special.”

The Checkers’ Alex Nedeljkovic, the AHL’s Goaltender of the Year, was nicked for the three early goals. Vellucci then lifted Nedeljkovic for veteran Dustin Tokarski with 15 minutes left in the second period. Tokarski shut out Toronto the rest of the way.

“Ned is our goalie and always has been our goalie,” Vellucci said. “That (the change) was to slow the momentum down.”

A Tomas Jurco goal late in the second period made the score 3-1, and there it stayed until nearly midway through the final period. Nicolas Roy scored with 12:39 left, bringing the crowd to life. A minute later, rookie Jesper Sellgren flicked the puck past Toronto goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo, and the coliseum got very noisy.

Energized by the crowd, the Checkers were relentless in the closing minutes, keeping the puck in the Toronto end. It finally paid off when Andrew Poturalski scored the go-ahead goal with 1:41 to play. The Marlies pulled Kaskisuo for an extra skater about 30 seconds later, and Charlotte’s Patrick Brown scored on an empty-netter.

“You can’t give a team like that any life – any room – and they took advantage of that,” Marlies center Chris Mueller said afterward. “It’s been a long time since we experienced a loss, so we have to bounce back.”

Jurco said the rally was “all about momentum. When you gain it back, the game is easier. Out of nowhere, the game is just easier.”

3 who mattered

Tomas Jurco, Charlotte: Jurco had a goal and two assists.

Andrew Poturalski, Charlotte: Poturalski worked hard for the winning goal, finally slipping the puck past Kaskisuo for the game-winning in the final minutes.

Dustin Tokarski, Charlotte: Tokarski entered in relief of Nedeljkovic and made nine saves over the final 35-plus minutes. He is 9-0 with the Checkers since being obtained in February.

Worth mentioning

▪ The best-of-7 series resumes Tuesday with Game 3 in Toronto. Games 4 and 5 will be Thursday and Friday.

▪ This was the Marlies’ first loss since their regular-season finale, when they dropped a home game to Cleveland. Toronto then swept Rochester 3-0 and Cleveland 4-0 in the first two rounds. The five goals allowed Saturday were the most since that 5-1 loss to Cleveland at the end of the regular season.

▪ The Checkers have the fewest power plays of any team in the AHL playoffs this season. Vellucci called that trend “curious.”

▪ Toronto has the playoffs’ best power play, but Charlotte behaved itself Saturday night and didn’t give the Marlies many chances. Poturalski got a two-minute minor early in the first period, and the Checkers played penalty-free the rest of the way.

▪ It was Charlotte’s first victory in an AHL conference final. The Checkers only got this far in the playoffs once before, in 2011, and were swept in four games.

They said it

“When we got the crowd involved, it was definitely awesome.” – Checkers’ Andrew Poturalski.

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