The thrilling end was fitting for one of the Checkers’ best efforts of the season, but unfortunately for them, the result came just a little short.
The Checkers fell to Hershey in the 12th round of a back-and-forth shootout that saw several lead changes and clutch plays en route to an eventual 3-2 decision. The Bears’ Garrett Mitchell, who had just 2 points in 26 games this season, sealed his team’s win by becoming the fifth shooter on the night to beat Charlotte’s Mike Murphy.
Murphy finished a strong night with 28 saves, while Zach Boychuk scored both regulation goals for Charlotte, which will again host Hershey on Thursday.
Having more than held their own against the Eastern Conference’s top team despite dressing just 19 players, the Checkers walked away more pleased with their effort rather than disappointed with the wild finish.
“I thought it was a great effort by our guys and a big point for us,” said coach Jeff Daniels, whose was missing a total of eight players due to injuries and NHL recalls. "When you get to the shootout you're just kind of rolling the dice to see what happens."
“Obviously it's a little sour when there's a shooout loss like that, especially when they go about 12 or 15 rounds deep, but no, you can’t be too upset even though it's a loss,” said Dalpe. “You can definitely draw a lot of positives from it for sure.”
Each team seem to have the game all but won during the shootout that wouldn’t end, with Jon Matsumoto coming through on a must-score goal in round five before the Bears’ Danny Richmond and Patrick McNeill did the same in rounds six and 11, respectively, to avoid the loss. It wasn’t until Mitchell froze Murphy and put the puck into the empty net as he fell to the ice that the game finally came to a close.
“There's not many options left when you get that late on the bench,” said Daniels. “I thought the guys stepped up and got some big goals for us, and give them credit because they responded.
"There were some pressure goals on both sides. It’s a tough way to lose.”
Murphy, who said it was the longest shootout he had ever been a part of, spoke of the difficulties goaltenders face against such a wide array of shooters.
“It’s different now with the things guys do,” he said. “They put the brakes on, put it between their legs and do some crazy stuff.”
In order to get to that point, the Checkers had to come back from a 2-1 second-intermission deficit that was brought on when the Bears, who owned the league’s best power play at 30.9 percent coming into the game, struck on their first two opportunities of the night. In the second period, AHL scoring leader Keith Aucoin extended his point streak to 12 games, matching the longest streak posted by any AHL player at any time this season, with a shot from the left circle before former Checker Jacob Micflikier bounced one off Murphy’s shoulder and in from behind the goal line four minutes later.
“They’re a great team, especially on the power play,” said Boychuk. “I felt like they got a couple of lucky bounces on those power-play goals, so we don't really have to change anything. Just stick to our game and come back at them tomorrow."
Hershey would have added a third goal at even strength if not for the heroics of Murphy, who made arguably the Checkers’ most dazzling save of the season on Hershey’s Matt Ford. Having gone down to challenge the initial shooter, Murphy was, against all odds, able to dive to his side and deny Ford who came sneaking down the right side to receive an open pass.
“It’s just doing whatever I can to stop the puck,” said Murphy.
Boychuk provided a response just 2:09 into the third period when he took a cross-crease pass from Matt Beca, a forward recalled from the ECHL’s Florida Everblades earlier in the day, and tapped it in behind Hershey’s Dany Sabourin.
“If you go to the net, good things happen,” said Boychuk, who now ranks third on the team with 11 goals.
For all of Hershey’s power-play dominance, it was a huge penalty kill by the Checkers that got the team to overtime. With just 2:03 left in regulation and the score tied at 2-2, Cedric McNicoll took a tripping penalty that gave the Bears a golden chance to earn two points. However, the Checkers, who held the league’s No. 6 power play to start the day, shut the door.
“That got us the point,” said Daniels. “The PK stepped up at a big time.”
Up until Hershey’s power play broke the game open in the second period, the Checkers were enjoying a 1-0 lead on Boychuk’s first goal, a shot from the right point that went off a Hershey defender and into the net past Sabourin. That came as part of a first period that saw Charlotte out-shoot the opposition 14-2, marking a new single-period season low for the AHL’s best offensive team.
“We talked before the game about being competitive and coming out with speed and intensity,” said Dalpe. “Part of it was just pressuring them and keeping it deep in their zone.”
The Checkers now get their second crack at Hershey, who they face a total of three more times this season. In what’s been something of a rivalry over the years – the Bears have faced the Carolina Hurricanes’ top minor-league affiliate in each of the last two postseasons – the quick rematch should make for equally good viewing.
“I enjoy it because it brings out a little bit of a battle level,” said Boychuk. “You can be hitting guys, and you’ll know they’ll be feeling it the next day.”
NOTES: Beca’s point was the second of his AHL career and first since the 2009-10 season … Aucoin has 22 points during his 12-game point streak … Hershey entered the game with three of the AHL’s top seven scorers in Aucoin, Micflikier and Chris Bourque … Charlotte’s Jerome Samson and Hershey’s Bourque, who rank first and second in AHL shots, respectively, each missed tonight’s contest. Samson was on NHL recall with Carolina, while Bourque was scratched due to veteran player limits … Hershey’s Joel Rechlicz, the AHL’s penalty minutes missed the game while serving a single-game suspension but will return Thursday … Charlotte’s injured players were Chris Durno, Riley Nash, Mathieu Roy, Justin Shugg and Jared Staal. Justin Peters, Brett Sutter and Samson were on NHL recall … Fans named Boychuk the winner of the Roll up Your Sleeves Hardest Worker of the Game Award.