October 15, 2011 9:05 PM
It was exciting to watch, but at the end of the day, the Checkers were more relieved than anything.
Matt Pistilli scored the winning goal in the seventh round of the shootout, allowing the Checkers to escape with a 4-3 victory over the visiting Peoria Rivermen on Saturday that ended up being much closer than anticipated. Coming off a dominant start, including a second period that saw the team allow just one shot on goal while going up 3-0, a sudden collapse changed all that.
Six minutes into the third period, the game was tied when Peoria scored three times in a span of 3:08.
“It was disappointing,” said Checkers coach Jeff Daniels, whose team earned its first victory of the season in its home opener. “We had a really strong first two periods, the strongest we’ve had so far. It was a good lesson to learn.”
“I think they were a desperate team,” Checkers forward Zach Boychuk said of the Rivermen “They were still looking for their first win, and down 3-0, they had nothing left to lose. It ended up costing us.”
Other than the start of the third period, Daniels said that he was pleased with the team’s improved defensive effort. The Checkers allowed 44 shots in each of their first two games, an overtime loss and a loss in Norfolk, but held the Rivermen to just 25 on Saturday, with goaltender Justin Peters making 22 saves.
It helped that early goals by Nicolas Blanchard, playing his first game on a scoring line with Drayson Bowman and Jon Matsumoto, and Jerome Samson gave the Checkers some breathing room and a 2-0 lead when the game was just seven minutes old. Blanchard scored his first of the year on a backhand from in close that beat goaltender Jake Allen, while Samson’s fluttering slap shot from just inside the offensive blue line, his third goal in three games, proved to be a welcome surprise.
A highlight-reel goal by Zach Boychuk in the midst of the Checkers’ stifling defense in the second period seemed to be all they would need. With just 1:34 left on the clock, Boychuk made a power move to the net, holding off a defender along the way, before roofing a backhand past Allen. However, one brief lapse brought things very much within doubt after the intermission.
“At the end of the day, it wasn’t our best effort for 60 minutes,” said Pistilli.
The game would end up lasting longer than that, going the full five-minute overtime and into seven rounds of the shootout. After the Checkers’ Chris Terry scored in a do-or-die third-round situation to keep the team alive and answer Peoria’s Derek Nesbitt’s earlier tally, Pistilli skated down the ice and roofed a shot past Allen that the Rivermen’s Anthony Nigro couldn’t match.
“The ice was getting pretty mushed up out there and I saw some other guys struggling with it, so I thought I would just keep it simple,” he said.
As a member of the Checkers’ fourth line, Pistilli acknowledged that he may not have been the odds on favorite to win this game.
“My thought was that, ‘No one is expecting this guy to score, so I might as well just go out there,’” he said.
Daniels acknowledged that his choice was less than scientific.
“He’s got good hands and wants to be a goal scorer at this level, but when you get to the seventh round, you’re mostly just going on gut feelings,” he said.
Like the rest of the team, Pistilli was still wary of the negatives that came with the team’s performance, causing an aura of cautious happiness after the game. Still, he couldn’t help but relish the format that gave him his chance to shine.
“I love the shootout,” he said. “I think it’s the greatest thing ever invented in hockey and I hope it never goes away.”
Fans voted Checkers forward Chris Terry the “Roll Up Your Sleeves Hardest Worker of the Game Presented by Community Blood Center of the Carolinas. For more information on the program, click here.
NOTES: Matsumoto kept his three-game point streak alive with an assist on Blanchard’s goal. He is the only Checkers player to record a point in each of the team’s games this season ... Four Checkers players – Samson, Blanchard, Bowman and defenseman Mathieu Roy – recorded five shots on goal … Bowman has points in two consecutive games, coming off a two-goal performance last week … Neither team scored a power-play goal, with Charlotte finishing 0-5. Peoria was 0-2.