It took some time for the Checkers’ offense to start clicking, as they found themselves in a 1-0 hole halfway through regulation, but a Dennis Robertson strike from the blue line late in the second frame breathed new life into the home squad.
Phil Di Giuseppe then gave Charlotte a lead in the final minute of the period and they never looked back. With Stockton attempting to rally back late in the third, the captain Patrick Brown kept a play alive below the goal line, firing the puck off the back of the Heat netminder and in to seal the 3-1 victory.
“It wasn’t a real pretty game, but we had five days off and we got going as the game went along,” said head coach Ulf Samuelsson. “I thought we played better throughout the game.”
“That’s a result of good team play by the forwards,” said Robertson. “We’ve got guys going to the net and playing dirty around there and getting the puck back. It’s always nice to chip in, because our d-corps needs to chip in more down the stretch for our team to be successful.”
“It was a real good shot,” said Samuelsson of Robertson’s goal. “There were two guys trying to block it and he managed to squeeze it right in between them. That was a terrific shot.”
All three of Charlotte’s goals tonight were products of simply throwing pucks at the net when given the chance. On the night the Checkers launched over 30 shots for the sixth time in the last eight games, which isn’t a coincidence.
“We’ve been working on getting people and pucks to the net,” said Samuelsson. “I thought we did a good job of that.”
That concentrated effort on shooting has helped boost the Checkers’ offense overall as of late.
“All week it’s been like that and even in the week before,” said Robertson of the coaching staff’s message to shoot. “We have been scoring more goals than in the first half of the year, which is a nice sign but we need to continue to get better at it.”
Playing in the third period with a one-goal advantage hasn’t necessarily been the Checkers’ bread and butter this season, as they have seen many of those leads either grinded out down to the last minute or overtaken late. Tonight was a different story, however, as Brown’s mark with just over five to play gave the team’s lead a cushion at a critical time.
“A lot of times you get into a shell and start defending and stop looking for opportunities,” said Samuelsson. “That line worked hard and they got good second and third chances. We finally got a little break and got a 3-1 lead.”
“I think it means we’ve matured,” said Robertson on scoring that third goal. “We’re a young team and I think we showed that in the first half, and now especially the rookies on our team have really matured and are playing more of a team game now. You can see that in our in team defense and the maturity it takes to put teams away when they’re down.”
While the offense did its part, Charlotte’s All-Star turned in a gem of a game between the pipes. Michael Leighton stopped 26 of the 27 shots he faced, including shutting the Heat down on four man advantages throughout the night.
“He was huge,” said Samuelsson. “He made some highlight saves tonight that gave us a chance to win. You’ve got to give him a lot of credit tonight.”
“We knew that they had some sneaky skilled forwards, and part of our plan was to play more defensive and stay out of the box, and look what happened early in the game,” said Leighton. “We gave up too many opportunities, but you’ve got to give them some credit because they have some skilled players and they’re going to make plays.”
With two straight wins under his belt, Leighton looks to be honing back in on his game after a whirlwind few months that saw him serving as a backup in Carolina, occasionally starting for Charlotte and spending his All-Star break representing the team in Lehigh Valley.
“It’s good to get settled down and be in one spot,” said Leighton. “It was good to be home all week, kind of relax and get some good practice time in.”
Aside from stopping the puck, Leighton was vocal in helping get his young defensive corps out of trouble from a strong Stockton forecheck.
“I pride myself on trying to help out as much as I can and talk as much as I can,” said Leighton. “I might be a little more vocal than other goalies, but sometimes they take my advice and sometimes they don’t. I tell them what I see, and if they like it they make a play. If not, they do their own thing.”
“He’s a legend in this league and he’s played a lot of games in the NHL as well,” said Robertson of Leighton. “We talk to him all the time and tell him to help us out because he sees the ice as well as anybody.”
With the Heat in a freefall in the Pacific Division, there’s no question that they will be back with a vengeance in tomorrow night’s rematch.
“They’ll regroup,” said Samuelsson. “They had a lot of chances and it was probably a pretty even game when you break it down. There are areas we can do better in for sure tomorrow.”
With every game holding an increasingly important two points for the Checkers to climb back into the playoff race, they’ll be looking to keep that strong play at Bojangles’ Coliseum rolling.
“Our home record has shown that we’ve done well here so we’ve got to stay with that,” said Leighton. “We haven’t been successful on the road for some reason, I don’t know why, but we play a different game at home and we’ve got a good stretch of games here where we need to put together a winning streak and play some catch up here.”