Already one of the AHL’s best setup men, Marc-Andre Gragnani is doing his best to help the Checkers get some much-needed goals.
The veteran defenseman capped off a three-point night with a power-play goal in overtime to give the Checkers a 3-2 win in Norfolk on Wednesday. The goal was his third of the season and second in as many games, while his two assists tied him with Riley Nash for most on the team with 24.
Making his second start since Justin Peters joined the Carolina Hurricanes earlier in the week, John Muse made 31 saves as the shorthanded Checkers, who were missing five forwards due to injury and two more to NHL recall, were out-shot for the ninth time in their last 10 games, this time by a 33-22 margin.
Chris Terry and Jeremy Welsh had the other goals for Charlotte, which has now clinched at least a share of the GEICO Challenge Cup that is awarded to the team with the most points at the conclusion of the eight-game season series. With two match-ups to go, including one in Charlotte next week, the Checkers now lead 4-2-0.
Gragnani, who won the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL’s top defenseman while playing with Portland two seasons ago, capped a strong special teams night for the Checkers by blasting a shot from the point as he fell past otherwise stellar Norfolk goalie Frederik Andersen. The goal, scored 36 seconds into the extra session, was on a power play that carried over from Luca Caputi’s goalie interference penalty that left Muse shaken up with one minute left in regulation.
Gragnani now has 11 points (2g, 9a) in his last nine games at the AHL level dating back to Feb. 14. He extended his point streak to four games (2g, 4a).
His goal, coupled with Welsh’s five-on-three strike that he set up to give the Checkers a 2-1 lead with five minutes left in the second period, was the team’s second goal on four chances on the evening. Charlotte is now 15-for-44 (34.1 percent) on the man advantage over its last nine games.
Gragnani now ranks sixth on the Checkers with 27 points, 21 of which have come on the man advantage. His pass from the point to find Welsh alone in the shot for his goal tied him for first in the AHL with 18 power play assists, a notable achievement considering he has missed a total of 21 games due to injury and illness this season.
Welsh’s goal was his 11th of the season, which ranks second among players in the Checkers’ lineup on Wednesday. The top honor belongs to Terry, who notched his 22nd goal of the season to tie the score at 1-1 midway through the first period.
That goal, which canceled out Devante Smith-Pelly’s opener for Norfolk, came when newcomer David Marshall held the puck at the blue line and sent a well-timed shot towards goal that coincided with Terry’s arrival in front of Andersen. Terry managed to knock the puck home, with the goal withstanding a brief video review.
The assist by Marshall, a former ECHL Checker who signed a professional tryout contract with the team earlier in the day to replace injured forward Justin Shugg, was his first point in the AHL since March 3, 2012. He had been playing in the ECHL with the Reading Royals for much of the interim.
Norfolk’s second goal that tied the score at 2-2 just 22 second into the third period ended the Checkers’ streak of killing 30 second consecutive penalties over their last eight games, but just barely. With just a single second left on Gragnani’s high-sticking penalty that carried over from the second period, Patrick Maroon took a pass from Sami Vatanen in the slot and finished his own rebound past Muse.
Despite that goal, the first power-play tally the Checkers have allowed since Feb. 14, Charlotte finished the night 5-for-6 on the penalty kill, including 59 total seconds while at a two-man disadvantage.
Muse was a big part of that, as he rebounded from allowing four goals on 25 shots in Monday’s loss to Oklahoma City to improve to 4-2-0 on the season and 15-5-2 at the AHL level over the last three campaigns. He ended a personal two-game losing streak that began with a 6-2 loss in Norfolk last Friday.
Meanwhile, the Checkers could have won the game in regulation if not for some heroics by Andersen, a former Carolina Hurricanes prospect who denied Sean Dolan, Chris Terry and David Rutherford with great saves down the stretch. He also got some help from his goalpost, with Welsh drawing iron on the first half of the power play that would eventually decide the game.
The Checkers now return to Charlotte for a five-game home stand that begins with back-to-back games against the Houston Aeros on Saturday and Sunday.
The Checkers have won each of their last four overtime games during the five-minute session that precedes the shootout. Three of those goals were on the power play … The Checkers’ five overtime wins (non-shootout) are the most in the AHL … Gragnani’s three points were the most since he recorded four power-play assists at Grand Rapids on Oct. 26 … Rutherford (1g, 2a) and Luke Pither (0g, 3a) each extended their point streaks to three games … Terry (1g, 1a) has 30 points in his last 26 games dating back to Dec. 30 … In addition to Shugg, forwards Zac Dalpe, A. J. Jenks, Andreas Nodl and Jerome Samson missed the game due to injury.