The Checkers ended their longest-ever losing streak on Friday night, and they did so in style.
Five different players scored goals, Drayson Bowman recorded a Gordie Howe Hat Trick and Dan Ellis made 36 saves as the Checkers defeated Lake Erie 5-1 at Time Warner Cable Arena, ending the five-game skid that marked the longest in team history. It was the first win of the team’s record 10-game home stand, which is now six games old.
After a string of discouraging losses, some due to poor efforts, some due to poor execution and both with a good measure of bad luck mixed in, relief was the operative word. The fact that the win came convincingly was icing on the cake and validation for those who felt things were starting fall into place.
“In our last couple of games, even though we lost them we started to play the right way,” said Ellis, the 32-year-old NHL veteran. “We started to get our identity back.”
"We wanted to get a win and we got it," said Daniels. "There's a little more life in the room right now."
The energy of the contest was in stark contrast to most of the games in the losing streak. In addition to five Checkers goals that were the most since the team’s previous win in Norfolk on Nov. 21, the game featured four fights, by far the most in any of the team’s game this season.
Half of those came during as wild of a sequence one is likely to see in a hockey game. Just prior to the game being turned entirely on its head, captain Brett Sutter set off a team promotion with his Teddy Bear Toss goal just under three minutes in by putting a shot between the legs of goalie Sami Aittokallio on a rush up ice.
As it turned out, hundreds of bears falling to the ice would be the least crazy thing to happen over the next few minutes. Starting with a soft goal that tied the game against Ellis, who was not expecting Geoff Walker to shoot from the corner and watched the puck bounce off his skate and into the net, three goals and two fights would occur over the next 60 seconds of game action.
“It got energized pretty quick,” said Ellis.
On the shift after Walker’s goal, Nicolas Blanchard took on Patrick Bordeleau in a spirited heavyweight bout near center ice that featured crushing blows from both players, who lead their respective teams in penalty minutes.
“Blanch fought one of the tougher guys in the league, and that really got the bench excited,” said Daniels.
That became evident four seconds later when Sean Dolan made a beautiful play to make it 2-1 as he swatted a rebound home as he dove towards the ice. Not to be outdone by Blanchard, Dolan then took on Mitchell Heard as the two jockeyed for the ensuing faceoff. On the shift after that, defenseman Justin Krueger scored his first goal of the season on a shot from the left point.
Though the minute of madness had officially ended, the second period would still feature the Checkers’ second hit post of the game and a near-goal by Jeremy Welsh, whose shot at least partially crossed the goal line but was disallowed following video review.
Bowman, who assisted on Krueger’s goal, would drop the gloves with Mike Sgarbossa in the middle frame, setting up his eventual one goal, one assist, one fight performance when he scored the team’s fifth goal late in the third period that started off with Jerome Samson’s second goal in as many games.
“We needed a win in the worst way, and when that happens you start to get into it a little bit,” said Bowman, who recalled having a couple of Gordie Howe Hat Tricks in junior hockey but never in four season as a pro, when asked about his bout with Sgarbossa. “They weren’t going to back down either.”
Bowman, not normally the fighting type, wouldn’t have been Daniels’ first guess as to which player would accomplish the rare feat.
“I’m not sure what the Vegas odds would have been on that,” he said. “Fighting’s not normally something he does, but he is here to be tough to play against.”
The goal was Bowman’s 13th of the season, tying him with Zach Boychuk for first on the team and for second in the AHL in goal scoring.
Despite the offensive outburst once typical of the Checkers as they built a 12-3-2 start to the season but was missing during their recent slump, the game could have been closer if not for the play of Ellis, who was outstanding on either side of his brief lapse on Walker’s goal.
“That’s what you want from your goalie,” said Daniels, who noted that his team loosened up considerably in the defensive end during the third period. “He was there to bail us out.”
“You try not to think too much about those,” said Ellis, referring to Walker’s goal that caught him by surprise. “Those goals are going to happen, and if you focus too much on them they’ll put you off your guard.”
The Checkers now have four games remaining in their home stand. Heading into the first of a two-game set against Milwaukee on Sunday, they should, if Friday’s game is any indication, have the momentum that eluded them in its winless first half.
“Whenever you're in a streak losing a couple in a row like that, it's good to get some goals and some confidence to get it behind you," said Bowman. "Hopeully we can go back to the way we were playing before we started the little slide here, and we've got to win a couple in a row now to get back on track."
The Checkers’ five-game losing streak was the longest active run in the AHL, while their five-game home losing streak tied the longest in the league this season ... Charlotte improved to 2-2-2 all-time against Lake Erie … The Checkers had just 12 major penalties in 22 games coming in … Sutter’s goal was his eighth of the season, putting him just five short of his career high set last season … Krueger’s goal was the third of his AHL career and first since April 13 … Each team was 0-for-4 on the power play … Forwards A.J. Jenks and Justin Soryal were healthy scratches ... Fans named Ellis the Roll up Your Sleeves Hardest Worker of the Game.