CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Charlotte Checkers won the Macgregor Kilpatrick trophy with 110 points in the 2018-19 regular season, but dropped three-of-four contests against their Atlantic Division Final opponents, the Hershey Bears in this time frame. Can the Checkers overcome the Bears in the playoffs and advance to the East Final?
Charlotte carries copious amounts of confidence into round two, following up a 51-win campaign with an impressive four-game series win over Providence in the first round of the 2019 Calder Cup Playoffs. The series started in Rhode Island, where the top-seeded Checkers earned a split by winning game one before dropping the second contest. The split was more than enough, though, as Charlotte posted 3-0 and 4-1 wins in games three and four to publish the final chapter in the story of the 2018-19 Providence Bruins.
The Checkers were led in the series by the high-flying top line of Andrew Poturalski, Morgan Geekie, and Aleksi Saarela. Saarela had three assist in the four games, while Geekie chipped in four goals and a helper, but Poturalski was on another level entirely. He led all playoff performers in the first round with five goals and nine points (5G, 4A), an astounding average of 2.25 points per game.
Charlotte received a stellar effort between the pipes from Alex Nedeljkovic, who posted a 3-1 record in the Atlantic Semis against Providence. Nedeljkovic had a goals against average of 2.00 even with a save percentage of .923, and shut the Bruins out on 20 shots in a game three triumph in Charlotte.
Charlotte will be without his services to start the Atlantic Final, however, as he was called up to NHL Carolina on an emergency basis after Hurricanes starter Petr Mrazek went down with a lower-body injury on Sunday. Mrazek is listed as day-to-day, so he could return to the Carolina crease at any point. As soon as he does, Nedeljkovic will be headed back to Charlotte.
The Hershey Bears qualified for the postseason as the third seed in the Atlantic Division, but then outlasted the second-seeded Bridgeport Sound Tigers in a thrilling five-game series. Three of the games went to overtime, including both game four in Hershey and game five in Bridgeport. The Bears lost two of the three games that went beyond 60 minutes, but they won the one that mattered when Brian Pinho scored 10:27 into overtime in the winner-take-all Game Five in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
The Bears may not have had someone scoring at the rate of Poturalski, but they used a combination of defense, goaltending and a balanced attack to defeat the Sound Tigers. Hershey scored just eleven goals in the five game set, but they came from eight different players. Only Riley Barber, Jayson Menga and Ryan Sproul tickled the twine twice, with Barber and Menga also leading the team with four points each (2G, 2A).
Hershey gave up a league-high 37.8 shots per game in the first round, but also ranked third in the infinitely-more-important category of goals against at just 1.80. This can be attributed to two things: first, primarily surrendering low-risk shots from the outside and preventing quick passes through the slot, but also to the play in net of two solid tenders who dealt with the Sound Tiger offerings with exceptional effectiveness.
Ilya Samsonov made three starts in the series for the Bears, going 2-1 including a 3-2 overtime win in game five. He posted a goals against of 1.61 and had a save percentage of .945 in the series. The other two starts were made by Vitek Vanecek, who was 1-1 with save percentage of .962 and a goals against of 1.49. This included a 2-0 shutout win in game two in Bridgeport, and a 37-of-40 performance in a 3-2 overtime loss at home in game four.
This is the first postseason meeting between the Checkers and Bears, who have two vastly different histories when it comes to the Calder Cup Playoffs. This is only Charlotte’s ninth season in the AHL, and it has now qualified a very respectable five times in that span.
Hershey, meanwhile, has been around since before the United States entered World War II, playing its first season in 1938-39. In all that time, the Bears have only missed the playoffs 13 times. 13 early summers in 80 years, and only two since 2005-06. Oh yeah, they’ve won three Calder Cups since 2005-06 as well.
Final Regular Season Records:
Charlotte Checkers: 51-17-7-1, 110 Points, 1st in Atlantic, 1st in East, 1st in AHL
Hershey Bears: 43-25-4-4, 94 Points, 3rd in Atlantic, 5th in East
How They Got Here:
Division Semifinal Results:
#1 Charlotte defeats #4 Providence 3-1
- Game 1: CHECKERS 5 @ Bruins 4
- Game 2: Checkers 2 @ BRUINS 4
- Game 3: Bruins 0 @ CHECKERS 3
- Game 4: Bruins 1 @ CHECKERS 4
#3 Hershey defeats #2 Bridgeport 3-2
- Game 1: Bears 2 @ SOUND TIGERS 3 OT
- Game 2: BEARS 2 @ Sound Tigers 0
- Game 3: Sound Tigers 1 @ BEARS 2
- Game 4: SOUND TIGERS 3 @ Bears 2 OT
- Game 5: BEARS 3 @ Sound Tigers 2 OT
Series Schedule (Home Team in BOLD CAPS and all times local):
- Game 1: Friday, May 3- Hershey @ CHARLOTTE 7:00 p.m. ET
- Game 2: Saturday, May 5- Hershey @ CHARLOTTE 6:00 p.m. ET
- Game 3: Tuesday, May 7- Charlotte @ HERSHEY 7:00 p.m. ET
- Game 4: Wednesday, May 8- Charlotte @ HERSHEY 7:00 p.m. ET
- *Game 5: Friday, May 10- Charlotte @ HERSHEY 7:00 p.m. ET
- *Game 6: Sunday, May 12- Hershey @ CHARLOTTE 5:00 p.m. ET
- *Game 7: Tuesday, May 14- Hershey @ CHARLOTTE 7:00 p.m. ET
Season Series Recap:
Hershey went 3-0-0-1 (7 Pts.) against Charlotte.
Charlotte went 1-2-0-1 (3 Pts.) against Hershey.
- October 19- Bears 3 @ CHECKERS 4 SO
- October 20- BEARS 2 @Checkers 0
- February 9- Checkers 2 @ BEARS 3 SO
- February 10- Checkers 1 @ BEARS 2
Charlotte and Hershey clashed in four tightly-contested and penalty-filled contests in the regular season, with two needing shootouts to decide them. The Bears claimed victory in three of the four meetings by defending well and holding the Checkers to just six goals in the run of play over four games. That is just a goal and a half per game for high-scoring Charlotte.
Hershey claimed victory in the special team battle as well, which loomed large with on average six power plays apiece per night. The Bears held the Checkers to a paltry 11.5% (3-for-26) in the season series, a full 8.2% below their season average of 19.7%. Hershey clicked at 20.8% (5-for-24) with the man advantage against Charlotte in 2018-19, slightly above it’s overall average of 18.5%.
Charlotte has just one player with multiple goals in the season set against Hershey, Nicolas Roy with two (2G, 0A, 2Pts.). Poturalski (0G, 3A, 3Pts.) and Janne Kuokkanen (1G, 2A, 3Pts.) held the team lead in points with just three each. Nedeljkovic played all four games in the Checkers net, finishing with a record of 1-2-1 (2.22 GAA, .890 SV%).
Shane Gersich led Hershey with a point per game against Charlotte (1G, 3A, 4Pts.), with Aaron Ness (0G, 3A, 3Pts.) and Barber (2G, 1A, 3Pts.) each pitching in three points. Vanecek made three starts in goal for the Bears, posting a 2-0-1 record with a 1.59 goals against and .945 save percentage. Samsonov did the job in his only start as well, securing the win by allowing one goal while sporting a save percentage of .967.
How Charlotte wins:
By proving its depth and tightening up the discipline.
Hershey will certainly be keying in on Poturalski, Geekie, and Saarela to try and contain them, leaving openings for others to contribute. Charlotte will look to players such as Roy, Martin Necas, Julien Gauthier, and Nick Schilkey to provide some offensive support for the top line, and Trevor Carrick and Bobby Sanguinetti to help facilitate the offense from the blueline. The Checkers also need to be strong on the forecheck and patient with their cycle once possession has been obtained. Don’t force anything if you are Charlotte, just trust in your ability as a team to move the puck to the open man.
Depth will also be key between the pipes if Nedeljkovic misses any games while up in the NHL with the Hurricanes. Dustin Tokarski will get the game one start should Nedeljkovic not be back, and he has been a perfect 7-0-0 with a staggeringly-stingy 1.14 goals against and .956 save percentage since coming over from Hartford midseason. Backing him up would be would be longtime Hurricanes and Blackhawks goalie Scott Darling. The experience certainly seems to be there to fill the hole without much issue if needed.
Charlotte also needs to stay out of the box. The Checkers are currently the only Eastern Conference team to rank ahead of a Western Conference squad in penalty minutes, and they sit ahead six of them. Only Grand Rapids (25.2) and Chicago (22.0) averaged more penalty minutes a game in the first round than Charlotte’s 19.25. Hershey will be trying to make this a low-scoring series, making every opportunity critical. The Bears scored on 20.8% of their man advantages against the Checkers in the regular season.
This is far from an easy series, but if Charlotte can stay out of the box and mix it up on the scoresheet, it will be in a great position to come home for game xix needing just one win to advance. If that happens, it’s all over for Hershey.
How Hershey wins:
By slowing down the Checkers’ top line and avoiding playing from behind.
The Bears did well containing Poturalski, Geekie, and Saarela in the regular season, but the three have them have been incendiary as a unit in the postseason. Poturalski, in particular, has had two or more points in each game of the playoffs so far. Geekie has exploded in the playoffs as well, leading all rookies and is tied for second overall with four goals. Hershey needs to slow this line down or it will be a short series. he Bears simply can’t keep up if this turns into an offensive series.
Hershey will also need to continue the trend of scoring first, after opening the scoring in four-of-five against Bridgeport. The Bears were 2-2 in those games. Charlotte, meanwhile, was a perfect 3-0 when scoring first. Both teams lost the only game in which they allowed the opening tally in round one.
If the Bears do fall behind, they need to get the goal back as soon as possible. The longer you let Charlotte play with a lead, the less likely you are to win. Simple as that. Including a 2-0 mark against Providence in round one, Charlotte is 32-5-1-1 in 2018-19 when ahead after 20 minutes. If the Checkers are allowed to take a lead to the third, well, good luck with that. They are a perfect 41-0-0-0 when ahead after two periods this season, including 3-0 against the Bruins in their Atlantic Semi.
Not playing from behind goes for the series as well, as Hershey is set up well if it can get off to a quick start. Should the Bears get a split, or better yet, a sweep from the first two games in North Carolina, the chocolate and white would come home with a chance to end the series by protecting the ice inside Giant Center.
Hershey handled Charlotte in the regular season, and there is no reason to think that can’t happen again. Winning four times over a week or two in a seven game series is MUCH different than taking three-of-four over the course of a season, but Hershey has the ingredients for a sweet result.
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