Coming off their worst game of the season, the Checkers got the start they were hoping for. Unfortunately, they didn't get much more.
Rockford scored five unanswered goals to beat the Checkers 5-2 at Time Warner Cable Arena on Saturday, extending Charlotte's only losing streak of the season to three games. Brett Bellemore and Zach Boychuk scored in the first period, while Justin Peters made 33 saves.
The Checkers now go into Sunday afternoon's rematch with the IceHogs with some work to do, having been disappointed with their effort in consecutive games.
"We set a high standard for ourselves early in the year, and now we've got to hold ourselves to that standard every game," said captain Brett Sutter, whose team fell to 12-6-2 on the season.
It didn't seem as though the Checkers, who had not lost by more than one goal until being out-scored 16-6 in their last three games, all at home, were headed down this path when Bellemore of all people opened the scoring just 1:57 into the first period on a wrist shot that beat Rockford goalie Carter Hutton high glove. The goal was just the fifth of Bellemore's 251-game AHL career and first since the stay-at-home defenseman scored his only goal of last season nearly one year ago.
The momentum continued through a much more expected source later in the period when Boychuk carried the puck down the left wing as a Charlotte power play was about to expire and hit the same spot as Bellemore did to give his team a 2-0 lead. The goal, Boychuk's 13th of the season, temporarily pulled him into a first place tie for first in the AHL, though a later goal by Syracuse's Tyler Johnson would ensure that he remained in second.
It wasn't until the first half of the second period that disaster struck, with Rockford scoring three times in a five-minute span to take the lead for good.
"When we came out for the second period we weren't ready to play," said coach Jeff Daniels, whose team fell to 3-4-0 at home this season. "They wanted it more than we did. We just relaxed and thought since we had a lead it was going to be easy."
The Rockford rally started via captain Martin St. Pierre, who finished a one-timer from the slot at the 4:37 mark. Rookie Brandon Saad then tied it on a late-developing, two-on-one break with Jeremy Morin before Ben Smith scored the eventual winner on a five-on-three power play.
St. Pierre added a fourth before the period, the Checkers' worst of the season in terms of goal differential, was over. Even after Nicolas Blanchard stuck up for a teammate by fighting the IceHogs' Kyle Beach following a questionable center-ice hit on Marc-Andre Gragnani, the Checkers couldn't muster enough sustained pressure to pose a serious comeback threat. On a night in which the Checkers hit two goal posts and saw video review uphold a no-goal call on Jeremy Welsh, the only additional scoring would come via Morin, who capitalized on a late power play with Drayson Bowman in the box.
"I was trying to do something to get a spark," said Blanchard, who received a double-minor for roughing and a 10-minute misconduct as a result of his altercation with Beach, who did not engage Blanchard in a fight. "It didn't work."
"We got complacent, and we never recovered from that," said Sutter.
That play was one of a handful of scrums that broke out during the game, including a third-period fight between St. Pierre and the Checkers' Jerome Samson, who had just one previous fighting major in his 338-game AHL career that took place all the way back in 2008.
Blanchard said that those incidents, along with the frustration of losing three games in a row, have the potential to carry over into Sunday's rematch.
"It's a little bit of a rivalry that we have here," said Blanchard, whose team fell to 1-2-0 against Rockford this season. "Every player had to be ready mentally."
As Saturday's game showed, the biggest point of emphasis will be putting together a complete effort like the ones that were the norm early in the season when the team shot out to first place in the AHL despite a grueling nine-game road swing to start the season.
"I know they're all disappointed in there, and now they've got to put that energy in the right direction to be able to play a solid 60 minutes," Daniels.
The Checkers fell to 7-3-1 all-time against Rockford … Blanchard's misconduct against Beach was the Checkers' first of the season, as the team entered the game averaging the least amount of penalty minutes per game in the AHL ... The 16 penalty minutes to Blanchard, who is the Checkers' all-time leader in that category and leads the team again this season, were the most to any Checkers player in a single game this season … Gragnani returned from a seven-game absence (lower-body injury), earning the lone assist on Boychuk's goal. Despite missing eight total games this season, he is tied for third in the AHL with eight power-play assists … Justin Soryal played his first home game of the season … Forward Jared Staal and defenseman Rasmus Rissanen were healthy scratches … Fans named Samson the Roll up Your Sleeves Hardest Worker of the Game.
North Carolina Education Lottery Three Stars
1. Martin St. Pierre (Rockford)
2. Jeremy Morin (Rockford)
3. Ben Smith (Rockford)