With division rival Chicago in town, the two clubs locked up in a back and forth battle all night. The lead fluctuated from side to side all the way until the waning minutes, when a power-play strike pulled the Wolves back even with under two minutes to play in regulation.
But the Checkers kept pushing and drew a boarding call with just 10 ticks remaining. Lining up for the offensive zone draw, the puck got thrown at the net, and it was Patrick Brown who crashed in to score the game winner with 0.7 seconds left on the clock.
“Nine seconds, get the puck to the net,” said Brown of the play they drew up. “Chelly (Jake Chelios) made a great shot pass that’s not going to go in on any pro goalie from the point, but he put it right on my stick and someone else in front and we were able to tip it, whack it and hack it into the net.”
“We’re a good forechecking team,” said forward Connor Brickley. “When we get pucks in we’re pretty good at forcing turnovers. We find ourselves getting in trouble if we cause some turnovers in the neutral zone and force plays that aren’t there, but if we get pucks in deep we can create some havoc. You saw a couple of rebound goals from getting pucks on net, and that’s how we’re going to win.”
“After (Haydn) Fleury scored his goal [in the second] the momentum shifted a little bit,” said head coach Ulf Samuelsson. “We are a very good forechecking team and we were able to get some sustained time in the offensive zone.”
The Fleury goal Samuelsson was referencing, a rocket from the point that deflected off a Chicago stick and nested square in the top corner, was one of several big offensive plays stemming from the Charlotte blue line, something the coaching staff has been looking to spark all season.
“It really helps out when you have guys pushing the pace from behind,” said Samuelsson. “You’re going to make them get some bad reads at times.”
Brickley got the team going with the opening goal of the contest just five minutes in, slapping in a behind the back pass from Lucas Wallmark on the back door. For the new Checker, it stood as his first of the year, an important jumping off point for him.
“That’s a good weight off the shoulders,” said Brickley, who the Hurricanes acquired just prior to the season in a trade involving Brody Sutter. “You try not to think about it but it’s always there in the back of your mind. I thought I’d been playing a little better hockey lately and creating some chances but just not finishing. I’m really happy for the team and it’s a good, positive sign for myself hopefully getting rid of that and now I can just build on it.”
With top scorers Brock McGinn, Derek Ryan and Matt Tennyson currently thriving in the NHL, the need for secondary scoring to emerge is dire for the Checkers. Tonight, with multi-point games from Fleury and Wallmark and helpers from the likes of Erik Karlsson and ECHL call-up Lekvo Koper, that help was there.
“You always want to be the best team you can be, but when guys called up it gives others opportunities,” said Brown. “A lot of those guys stepped up today.”
The team itself shook off a weight of frustration with tonight’s win, as they shed the four-game winless streak that has shrouded them over the last week, despite some solid play on the road.
“We lost a couple in the last few games but we played hard – it’s not like we weren’t playing well,” said Brown, who is currently serving as team captain. “Same things happened this game where we were playing hard, out-working them and out-chancing them, but things went our way because we kept working.”
“It’s a game of small margins and I think this game could have gone either way,” said Samuelsson. “We were able to pull this one out and the last road game was the same thing where we could have done it. We don’t play a different style at home or on the road. We play the same way and it just happens that now we rack them up at home and not so much on the road.”
The biggest boost for the Checkers, it seems, has been playing at home. While struggles have plagued them on the road, Bojangles’ Coliseum has been a safe haven for the team, who improved to a perfect 5-0-0 on home ice.
“Coming off a couple of losses in a row and coming home finally with the home crowd, I thought we played hard,” said Brickley. “We had some ups and downs but you have to stay even keeled on the bench. They scored that late goal and it was a little deflating but you go out there with a positive attitude.”
The team will once again face this same Wolves team tomorrow night for a rematch. Given how Chicago refused to roll over tonight, the Checkers know they will be in for a battle.
“We have to stay out of the penalty box,” said Brown on the key to tomorrow’s matchup. “They have a pretty lethal power play, but I think we controlled the five-on-five game for the majority of the game. If we can play five-on-five I think we’ll have a good chance of winning again.”
“They’re a hard-working team as well,” said Brickley. “You can tell with the style of play that they just get pucks in deep and be first on the forecheck. Tomorrow is going to be a grind again so we’re going to get our rest and get back at it tomorrow night.”