With a pair of games against the team directly behind them in the playoff race coming up on Saturday and Sunday, the Checkers began a three-in-three set by dropping a 5-2 decision to a likely non-playoff team in San Antonio on Friday. Nicolas Blanchard and Zach Boychuk scored and John Muse made 29 saves for the Checkers, whose win streak ended at four games.
Having missed a chance to potentially move up to seventh in the Western Conference, the Checkers now embark on a seven-hour bus trip before having to play two games against an Oklahoma City Barons team that trails them by two points with one game in hand. Oklahoma City was off Friday, though the two teams immediately behind them in Rochester and Utica both won to tighten the pack of teams chasing the Checkers.
Led by a mixture of veteran savvy (35-year-old Jed Ortmeyer had a goal and two assists) and youthful exuberance (recent college product Tyler Barnes scored twice in his professional debut), the Rampage came out fast and barely looked back to end their losing streak at four games. That they took each of the game’s first seven shots in the first period foreshadowed what was to come, as they led 4-0 and were out-shooting the Checkers 25-9 after two periods.
Led by Blanchard, who followed up his fight at the buzzer to end the first period with a goal, a hustle play to beat out an icing goal and beat goalie Michael Houser on a wraparound, to end the second, the Checkers showed brief signs of a comeback in the third.
After Mark Flood made a good play to keep the puck in the offensive zone on a power play, a pair of players who rejoined the team from the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes just in time for the game connected on a goal to make it 4-2, with Chris Terry’s pass from the right circle finding Boychuk in the slot. Boychuk’s goal was his 33rd of the season, giving him sole possession of the most in the AHL, while his 17th on the power play extended his existing league lead.
That goal, which extended Boychuk’s point streak to five games (5g, 6a), came on a delayed call against defenseman Jonathan Racine and gave the Checkers, who entered the game ranked second in the league in terms of power-play percentage at 22.5, another two minutes with which to work. They weren’t able to make it count for another goal, with Barnes making a move to beat fellow rookie Keegan Lowe one-on-one before putting a fifth goal by Muse and restoring his new team’s three-goal lead shortly thereafter.
The Checkers’ 19 shots on goal marked their third-lowest total of the season and lowest since Dec. 1. They were on pace to come short of their franchise low of 16 until surpassing their total from the first two periods combined with 10 in the third.