Despite the exciting finish, the Checkers know this one wasn’t anywhere close to a work of art.
Zach Boychuk finished what had been a sloppy, back-and-forth game against the Peoria Rivermen with his second goal of the game, a breakaway tally in overtime, to give his team a 5-4 win at Time Warner Cable Arena on Thursday. Drayson Bowman, Zac Dalpe and Jeremy Welsh also scored for the Checkers, who have now won six consecutive meetings with Peoria.
It’s a victory they’ll take, not to mention one that gave them sole possession of the AHL’s highest point total, but it’s also one that they’re hoping to learn from as they prepare to host the Rivermen once again on Friday.
“It’s not the way we want to play,” said coach Jeff Daniels, whose team gave up 38 shots and four goals to Peoria, the league’s worst offensive team entering the game. “We’ve lost a lot of structure to our game, and we need to get back to playing that team-game systems wise. It's good to get the win, but we've got some areas to tighen up right now.”
“Coach Daniels kind of said in the dressing room us that you don’t ever want to be mad that you won, but there are definitely holes in our game that we can work on,” said Dalpe, who also had an assist.
Goalie Justin Peters made 34 saves to win his third consecutive game and improve to 5-1-1 on the season, including several key stops when things began to unravel for the Checkers in the second period. That included a rarely-seen, five-on-one rush for Peoria, with Peters and defenseman Brett Bellemore somehow manning the fort to keep the score 2-1 for the Checkers before the Rivermen eventually struck twice to take a 3-2 lead into the intermission.
Asked if they had ever seen a five-on-one break before, few had answers.
“Not that I recall,” said Daniels.
“I had not, but Brett Bellemore did a great job,” said Dalpe.
The wild second period included a vicious hit by Peoria rookie Cody Beach, who was playing his first AHL game after posting 624 penalty minutes in 169 games of junior hockey, on Checkers defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti. With Sanguinetti in a vulnerable position having just played the puck, Beach appeared to hit Sanguinetti in the head with his elbow, causing Sanguinetti to lay motionless on the ice before eventually heading to the locker room on his own power.
Though Sanguinetti returned to the game minutes later and finished the second period, he did not come back out for the third. Daniels said that Sanguinetti is day-to-day, while his defensive partner Marc-Andre Gragnani, who left the game with an injury in the third period, would likely not play tomorrow.
Regarding the hit, the Checkers were careful with their words, choosing instead to let the AHL review the incident.
“You’re hoping he’s fine,” said Daniels of Sanguinetti. “I heard guys talking on the bench about the replay and … it was a shot to the head.”
“On the bench we were all yelling heads up because we could kind of see what was unfolding,” said Dalpe. “The guy who hit him is a young kid, but I don’t really have any other comment on it.”
In addition to a five-minute major that Dalpe scored on, Beach received a match penalty that carries an automatic indefinite suspension pending league review.
Once the dust settled from the incident and the teams came out for the third period, the Checkers once again reclaimed their lead on goals by Welsh, whose low shot from along the boards snuck its way in between Peoria goalie Jake Allen and the near post, and Bowman, who scored his 10th goal of the season, tying the league lead, by crashing the net and burying the rebound of a Brett Sutter shot.
The newfound lead would last only a few minutes, however, with the Rivermen’s Brett Sonne beating Peters on a sharp-angle shot from along the goal line with five minutes remaining to tie it at 4-4.
That set the stage for the winning goal by Boychuk, who had earlier scored in the first period on a feed from Riley Nash, canceling out Anthony Nigro’s opener just 51 seconds earlier. After coralling the puck in the neutral zone, Boychuk raced in on a breakaway and roofed a shot past Allen for his eighth goal of the season at the 1:15 mark of the extra session.
The goal was Boychuk’s fourth game-winning goal of the campaign, giving him sole possession of the AHL lead.
“He’s been scoring some big goals for us lately,” said Daniels. “He’s been creating chances night in and night out, and he stepped up and scored a big goal for us.”
“I've been getting a lot of breakaways this year and I haven't been able to score on a lot of them, but that was a good time to score that one,” said Boychuk.
In addition to waiting on word from the league about the match penalty to Beach, the Checkers will also await word on two of their star defensemen, who have a combined 16 points on the season. Justin Krueger, a healthy scratch on Thursday, is available if needed, though the Checkers would need to bring in another blueliner to dress six on Friday if both Gragnani and Sanguinetti are unable to play.
The Checkers have scored 30 goals during their six-game winning streak against Peoria, including 15 in three games this season … With one assist apiece, Sutter and Chris Terry each extended their point streaks to five games … Nash’s two assists gave him his first multi-point game of the season … The Checkers took a season-high 20 shots in the first period … Boychuk has goals in seven of the team’s 12 games ... Fans voted Drayson Bowman winner of the Community Blood Center of the Carolinas "Roll up your Sleeves" hardest worker of the game award.
North Carolina Education Lottery Three Stars
1. Zach Boychuk
2. Zac Dalpe
3. Anthony Peluso (Peoria)