After squandering a 2-0 lead with 2:39 remaining in regulation, including a shocking goal that tied it with six seconds remaining, the Checkers got clutch performances from John Muse and Matt Marquardt to skate away 3-2 winners after a six-round shootout against the Oklahoma City Barons. Marquardt and Victor Rask scored in regulation, Justin Shugg netted one in the shootout and Muse finished with 32 saves as he narrowly missed posting his second shutout in as many games.
With the win, the Checkers remain in eighth place in the Western Conference with three more points than the Barons, who they play again Sunday afternoon and twice more next week to conclude the 12-game season series. They are level on points with seventh-place Rockford, which lost Saturday, though the IceHogs have the tiebreaker by way of one fewer game played.
“Our focus going in was getting the win and that’s what we’re leaving the building with,” said coach Jeff Daniels.
“Our objective right now is to get as many wins as we can,” said Muse, who lost a shutout streak of 144:23 lasting parts of three games on former ECHL Checker Matthew Ford’s deflection to make it 2-1. “Obviously it’s disappointing to give up the point there, but at the same time it’s a big two points for us.”
After giving up the power-play goal to Ford and another to defenseman Taylor Fedun, who scored on a shot from the point through traffic directly off a faceoff win to stun the sellout crowd at Time Warner Cable Arena, Muse had to rebound in a series of high-pressure situations in overtime and in the shootout, where he stopped five of six. He showed patience to out-wait Barons shooters on a few different occasions, including the game-winning stop on Curtis Hamilton directly following Marquardt’s goal.
“He’s very professional, very focused and doesn’t get rattled,” said Daniels of Muse, who improved to 8-1-0 with a 2.19 goals-against average and .933 save percentage in March. “He’s able to move on after a goal, whether it’s a good goal or a bad goal, and I think that’s a key quality in a goalie.”
“They’re going to score goals, I know that,” said Muse, who is closing in on the Checkers’ all-time victory record with 42, one fewer than teammate Mike Murphy. “Nobody can be perfect in there. It’s all in how you react to the goals that you let in, and I try to let it go and move on to the next shot.”
The short turnaround between Saturday night and Sunday afternoon would normally call for the Checkers to switch goalies, but that may not be the case this time.
“Show up at 1:30 and you’ll find out,” said a wry Daniels.
“I want to play every game,” said Muse. “It’s JD’s decision, so we’ll see what happens.”
After Shugg answered Alex Lavoie’s third-round goal to tie it in round four of the shootout, Rask and the Baron’s Brad Hunt came up empty, setting the stage for Daniels to make an unexpected call.
“Everyone was listening to who was going to go and there was a silence there for a bit,” said Marquardt, who missed his only other attempt in his 260 previous AHL games. “He said my name. I turned around and looked at him, and he had to tell me to go again.”
With the game potentially on his stick, Marquardt used a bit of quick footwork to freeze goalie Richard Bachman and fire a shot over his blocker.
“Something we do every now and again is have a team shootout at the end of practice,” he said. “It’s just something I’ve been trying the last couple of times and it’s been working. I’m glad it worked in a game.”
“A lot of it is gut,” said Daniels on his decision to go with Marquardt at that time over several other options, including one of the AHL’s top goal scorers in Zach Boychuk. “Some guys have proven over this year or the last couple of years that they like those situations and they’re capable of scoring. He’s a guy that has scored a couple of times. I thought he had a good game and he deserved the opportunity.”
Of Marquardt’s 13 points in 54 games this season, five have come in his last nine games. That includes his opening goal in this one, a snipe from the slot to Bachman’s left early in the second period.
“He’s played well in the last couple of weeks and I just wanted to go in a different look the other night,” said Daniels. “It’s nothing against him. He scored a big goal, he’s a big, strong guy who can protect the puck and he scored a big goal to get us on the board early.”
Rask would add to that lead when he was in the right place at the right him to fire home a juicy rebound off the end boards from a missed shot by Matthew Pistilli two minutes into the third period. As well as Muse had played at the other end, it looked that that would be enough with the third period winding down until the Barons broke through on their late surge.
“You want to win the faceoff at the end of the game and maybe get a blocked shot up top, but I don’t think we sat back too much,” said Daniels.
“At this time of year anything can happen,” said Marquardt. “They got a couple of screen-shot goals, and that kind of stuff happens. They’re a hard-working team and they don’t give up.”
As the first game in what sets up as a playoff preview against a pair of bubble teams who will see plenty of each other in the next eight days, this one certainly did not disappoint.
“It was great to see the energy in the building and all the fans, and that makes it hungrier for both sides,” said Marquardt. “The intensity, the hitting and the physicality was ramped up a little bit and that’s the kind of hockey we pride ourselves on playing. It was a great game and I’m sure tomorrow will be too.”