PROVIDENCE, R.I. – The Charlotte Checkers and Providence Bruins opened their Atlantic Division Semifinal with two intense games in Providence, with top-seeded Charlotte looking to take a commanding 2-0 series lead home for games three through five.
The Atlantic Division Semifinal matchup started with a flurry of offense on Saturday night, with the Checkers and Bruins combining for nine goals in a back-and-forth affair.
The action started almost immediately, as just 1:26 in the top-seeded Checkers fired the opening salvo of the series. The goal came off the rush, as Andrew Poturalski accepted a breakout pass at the Providence blue line and fired a pass across the ice to Nick Schilkey. Schilkey crossed into the Bruins zone and found Morgan Geekie streaking through the slot. Geekie quickly pulled the puck to his backhand and sent a perfect shot by the glove of Providence goalie Zane McIntyre and just inside the far post to make it 1-0 Charlotte.
The line of Schilkey, Poturalski, and Geekie was on fire early, as on their second shift they would strike again to double the Charlotte advantage. Schilkey took a hit in the neutral zone, but got the puck across the blueline to create a two-on-one for Poturalski and Geekie, who sped to the back post, slammed on the breaks and tipped the pass from Poturalski into the back of the net. Geekie’s second made it 2-0 visitors with 16:11 still to play in the opening frame.
Providence was backed into a corner, but like a cornered animal, they lashed out viciously. The Bruins shocked the Checkers with three goals in 3:26 to take a 3-2 lead midway through the frame.
It started with an aggressive forecheck off a neutral-zone faceoff win, as, 6:45 into the first, Anton Blidh crashed in and knocked his man off the puck before sending a centering pass to the slot. Jordan Szwarz was waiting to unleash a rocket, and his one-time blast beat Alex Nedeljkovic clean to put the Bruins on the board and cut their deficit to one.
The Bruins pulled even with 10:29 to play in the first, this time converting on a power play. McIntyre picked up a Checkers clearance deep in the Bruins zone and handed it to Cooper Zech, who went coast-to-coast, weaving through the Charlotte defense and came in one-on-one with Nedeljkovic. The Checkers netminder got most of Zech’s point-blank offering, but the puck kicked off his pads and trickled over the line to make it a 2-2 game.
The Bruins took the lead just 40 seconds later, capitalizing off a turnover in the Checkers zone. Trent Frederic charged in and poked the puck away from the Charlotte defender after a dump-in. Blidh picked it up in the near corner and curled around the boards behind the net, then slammed on the breaks along far half-boards and turned and cut to the slot before winding up and releasing a laser to the top shelf. The highlight-reel goal gave the Bruins a 3-2 lead they took to the first intermission.
The lead didn’t last, however, as Charlotte responded with a two-goal second period to regain the advantage.
The tying goal came off a power play 6:53 into the middle stanza. Martin Necas sent a seeing-eye cross-ice pass to Tomas Jurco in the far dot, who quickly whipped a shot that drilled the post and ricocheted out into the slot. Jurco tracked his shot and was able to get to the loose puck first and send a shot under McIntyre and in to tie the game at three.
The Checkers took the lead with 3:26 remaining in the second after a fantastic breakout pass from their own zone. Nicolas Roy used geometry to angle a pass off the boards and into the Checkers zone that Julien Gauthier was able to gather at full speed. Gauthier screamed in on goal and lifted a shot at the last moment that eluded the shoulder of McIntyre and hit the back of the net.
Charlotte carried the 4-3 lead to the third, and, six minutes in, they looked to have double the lead. Geekie tracked a rebound that flipped up in the air and batted it home for what would have been his hat-trick goal, but the officials deemed the contact to have been made above the crossbar and waived it off. Charlotte pleaded its case, but to no avail.
The Bruins immediately used the emotion to their advantage, as on the ensuing shift Paul Carey scored to level the score. After a pressure-filled shift, Carey sent a centering pass from behind the net that bounced off the skate of a Charlotte defender and past Nedeljkovic to even the score, 4-4, with 13:16 to play.
The crowd at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center was energized, as it appeared luck was on the side of the home side. However, that feeling was very short-lived.
Just 22 seconds after Carey had tied it, the Checkers retook the lead for the final time. Bobby Sanguinetti sent a pass from the bottom of the near dot intended for a teammate at the back post, but the puck hit off the skate of a Bruins defender and in to silence the crowd and give the Checkers a 5-4 lead they would not relinquish.
The pace of play favored the top seed in game one, as the Checkers were able to get out in spread the ice consistently throughout the game. Charlotte used explosive breakout passes and pinpoint passing through the slot to pick apart the Providence defense and find the open man. This was exactly what the Checkers were looking for, and everything the Bruins feared. Providence left knowing it must take away passing lanes in its own end and clog the neutral zone going forward, or games four and five wouldn’t be needed.
With game two set for 5:05 local time on Sunday afternoon, the Bruins had less than 24 hours to make the necessary adjustments for game two. That was enough time, however, as Providence looked like a completely different team defensively on Sunday. The Bruins kept control of the puck for the vast majority of the game, holding the Checkers to just 13 combined shots in the first and third periods. The Checkers were unable to gain clean entries into the Bruins zone in game two, and, when they did gain entry, they were kept to the perimeter and limited to low-percentage shots without second chances.
The Bruins came out the hungrier and more aggressive squad on Sunday, and it paid off with a pretty power play goal just 2:04 into the contest. Carey received an entry pass just inside the blueline and laid it off for Szwarz streaking into the zone. Szwarz drew two defenders then quickly stopped along the near boards and curled back to search for options. He found Zech wide open at the top of the far dot and sent a perfect pass his way. Zech wasted little time in wiring a shot over the shoulder of Nedeljkovic to put the home squad on top.
Providence was not done and doubled the lead late in the first. The Bruins fought to get the puck out of their own end and Ryan Fitzgerald scooped it up just outside the zone and sent it to Lee Stempniak. Stempniak then hit speeding Jack Studnicka in stride as he crossed into the Charlotte zone. Studnicka released a well-placed wrister from the top of the slot that beat Nedeljkovic under the blocker, giving Providence a 2-0 lead with 1:18 left in the first.
The Bruins took the lead to the second period, but, late in the frame, the Checkers finally found their offense. Charlotte put Providence under sustained pressure over the final three minutes, finding twine twice to pull even.
First, on the power play, Poturalski fired a shot from the far circle that Bruins goalie Dan Vladar stopped, but the rebound rattled off a defender and slid in. It was the first of the playoffs for Poturalski, and cut the Charlotte deficit to 2-1 with 2:14 to play in the second.
Just 1:19 later, the Checkers found the equalizer, this time off a great play from an unlikely source. Checkers d-man Dan Renouf came in with speed off the rush, and pulled Vladar out of position with a fake shot before circling the net and wrapping the puck into the yawning cage. It was one for Renouf’s personal highlight reel, and sent the game to the third even at two.
Providence could have easily buckled under the pressure, but instead, regrouped at intermission and returned to its game in the final frame. The Bruins outshot the Checkers 12-7 in the third and, midway through, they found the eventual winner. Frederic centered to Studnicka, who quickly sent a slick pass back to Cehlarik for a backdoor tap-in. The gorgeous goal gave the Bruins a lead they wouldn’t surrender.
The Bruins added an empty netter from Chris Breen with one second left, and won by a 4-2 count. It was a massive win for Providence, as the series is now even at one game apiece heading to Charlotte for the final three games. Each side won twice in four regular-season meetings in Charlotte, and now a best-of-three series at Bojangles’ Coliseum will decide who plays on and who tees off next week. The series resumes Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET/6 p.m. CT.
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