HERSHEY, Penn.- The Charlotte Checkers came into game four in Hershey one win away from a series sweep of the Hershey Bears and a trip to the Eastern Conference Final.
The Checkers have been led by their high-powered offense all throughout the playoffs, having outscored their opponents by a total of 28-14 in their first seven games. Despite Hershey’s best efforts defensively, that trend continued in game four. Charlotte put five more goals on the board, coasting to a 5-2 victory to eliminate Hershey four games to none.
Charlotte was led in the series by the standout top line of Andrew Poturalski (5G, 8A, 13Pts., +12), Aleksi Saarela (6G, 4A, 10Pts., +10) and Morgan Geekie (5G, 5A, 10Pts., +11). All three players have double digit point totals, and each sports a plus/minus of plus-10 or greater. Saarela has come off strong as of late to join his linemates atop the Checkers’ scoring chart, scoring five goals in the two games in Hershey. Poturalski and Geekie, meanwhile, have produced in every game they have played in this postseason, with Poturalski having missed one game due to injury.
The top line was at it again in game four, led by Saarela in particular. Saarela opened the scoring in the first, scored the eventual game-winner in the second and put the game away with an empty netter late in the third to become the first ever Checkers player to record a postseason hat trick. Geekie and Poturalski were there to help, with Geekie netting assists on the first two of Saarela’s tallies and Poturalski helping to set up the empty net marker to keep his point streak alive.
The game started slowly on Wednesday, with each team going about its business in a deliberate and cautious manner. There were only 11 total shots fired on goal in the opening frame, with the Checkers holding a slim 6-5 edge. The game remained scoreless for the first fifteen minutes, but with 4:35 to play Charlotte drew first blood.
The goal came after a turnover deep in the Hershey zone when Geekie was able to intercept a pass that had been wrapped around the boards behind the Hershey net. Geekie slid a pass out to Trevor Carrick at the near dot, where four Bears immediately converged to take away Carrick’s shot. That was fine with Charlotte, as Saarela slipped quietly to the back post and opened up for a shot. Carrick slipped a seeing-eye pass through the quartet of defenders and onto the tape of Saarela, who sent a one-timer into the yawning cage to give the visitors a 1-0 advantage.
Charlotte took the one-goal advantage to the middle stanza, where it has controlled play all postseason. The Checkers added two more goals on Wednesday, and have now outscored their opposition 11-1 in the second period through the first two rounds. Their ability to continuously improve their position going to the third is one reason they have been unbeatable when given a lead to play with. Including game four against Hershey, Charlotte is 6-0 when scoring first in the playoffs.
Charlotte opened period two with 1:48 of power-play time, thanks to holding minor late in the first The Checkers wasted little time capitalizing on their chance to increase the lead, finding a goal with the man advantage just 57 seconds into the second. Bobby Sanguinetti started the play by wiring a shot from the point that Hershey goaltender Ilya Samsonov kicked out to the top of the right circle to Martin Necas. Necas immediately sent the puck right back towards goal, where Julien Gauthier was able to deflect it home to double the Charlotte lead.
The Checkers pushed the advantage to three with just over five minutes remaining in period two, as Saarela, Sanguinetti and Geekie each picked up their second point of the evening. Geekie started the play by crashing into a Hershey player along the boards in the Checkers’ zone, knocking the puck down to Sanguinetti behind the net. Sanguinetti wrapped a pass around the boards which eluded a Hershey d-man at the blueline and sprung Saarela and Geekie on a two-on-one. Saarela carried the puck into the Hershey zone, then took aim and sniped a perfectly-placed wrister over the blocker of Samsonov and into the upper-90. Saarela’s fifth goal of the postseason made it 3-0 with 5:38 left in the second.
Charlotte took the 3-0 lead to the third, pushing Hershey’s backs completely against the wall. The Bears now needed to overcome a three-goal deficit to the league’s best team, one which had successfully protected all 43 of its previous third period leads this season.
The mountain got even steeper early in the final frame, as 3:01 in Charlotte bagged a fourth. The goal was the second power-play tally of the night for the visitors, and came after a beautiful tic-tac-toe passing play. Necas accepted a pass along the near boards, then spun and located Gauthier open down in the near corner. Gauthier received the pass and quickly sent a one-touch feed through the slot to a waiting Tomas Jurco at the backdoor. Jurco made no mistake and slammed home his fourth of the playoffs to make it 4-0 with 16:59 to play.
The Bears could easily have folded their tents and packed their bags, but that was never going to happen with the resilient group in chocolate and white. Hershey responded just 2:36 after Jurco’s tally, finally converting a power-play chance of its own. The goal was the fourth of the playoffs for Jayson Menga, who set up in front of goal and redirected a pass from Riley Barber into the back of the net to give the Giant Center crowd something to cheer about.
The Bears continued to push and managed to pull another one back with just over five remaining in period three. Though this time Barber wouldn’t get a point, he was still instrumental as he screened Charlotte goalie Alex Nedeljkovic from seeing a shot from Garrett Pilon. The puck hit Nedeljkovic, but he was unable to stop the rebound from landing at the feet of Shane Gersich who knocked it home to pull the home side within two with 5:16 still left to equalize.
Hershey pulled Samsonov for the extra attacker with just over two to play, but Charlotte snuffed out the rally by quickly finding the abandoned cage. Poturalski kept his point streak alive by winning a battle along the boards and sending the puck to Dennis Robertson, who flipped the puck from his own end all the way down into the Hershey zone. Saarela was first to the loose biscuit and sent it home to give him a hat trick, and make the score 5-2 Charlotte with just 1:37 left on the clock.
Time expired and handshakes ensued, as Charlotte advanced to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since its inaugural season of 2010-2011.
Charlotte will have a tough challenge ahead of them, as its opponent will be the defending Calder Cup champion Toronto Marlies. Toronto also advanced via a sweep, eliminating the Cleveland Monsters in four. The Checkers will have home-ice advantage in the series, finishing with 110 points compared to the Marlies’ 91.
The two sides will have over a week to rest and prepare, with game one scheduled for Friday, May 17, at 7:00 p.m. ET/6:00 p.m. CT from Bojangles’ Coliseum in Charlotte.
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