CHARLOTTE, NC – The Charlotte Checkers played host to the Providence Bruins in a crucial Game Three inside Bojangles’ Coliseum on Wednesday, with the winner set to move within one win of clinching this Atlantic Division Semifinal.
Games One and Two couldn’t have played out much better from a neutral perspective, as both clubs left Rhode Island confident in their ability to win two out of three in North Carolina to claim the series. Game One opened with a five-goal third period, and ended up a 5-4 victory in favor of Charlotte. Charlotte picked apart the defense in the high-scoring Game One win, blatantly showing the offensive firepower wearing white and red. Providence’s response was exactly what the doctor ordered, however, shutting off the slot and defending its way to victory in Game Two. The Bruins were able to hold the Checkers offense in check for the majority of the game in a 4-2 triumph to even the series at one.
Game Three was controlled throughout by the Checkers, as their top players came to play in an impressive performance. Leading the way offensively for Charlotte once again was Andrew Poturalski. Poturalski led the Checkers in the regular season with 70 points (23G, 47A) in 72 games, but he has taken his game to another level in the postseason. With two goals and an assist on Wednesday, the 25-year-old now has three goals and four assists through three games in the series.
The Checkers locked the Bruins down defensively, allowing just 12 shots through two periods and 20 overall. Charlotte had given up four goals in each of the first two games, with the Providence power play going 1-for-5 both nights. The Checkers allowed five power plays against once again in Game Three, but killed them all this time around. It was a much more consistent effort from the Charlotte defense, and was exactly what is needed if there is a to be a deep Calder Cup run in North Carolina this spring.
After the game, Charlotte Head Coach Mike Vellucci was asked what he had said to the team in the locker room prior to Game Three:
“Before the game (the message) was: ‘let’s manage the puck, and Let’s not turn it over. Let’s be smart with it and get better DEFENSIVELY, and let’s move it quicker.’ and I thought we did all those things.”
When Providence did break through for a shot on goal, Charlotte netminder Alex Nedeljkovic was there to make the save. Nedeljkovic was a perfect 20-of-20 on the night, recording his second career postseason shutout. The Pharma, Ohio native is now 2-1 with a .910 save percentage and 2.33 goals against average in the second season. He was great from the drop of the puck, and made the big saves when called upon to keep momentum squarely on the side of the Checkers all game long.
The scoring started midway through the opening frame, with Poturalski wowing the crowd on a beautifully patient effort for the goal. Aleksi Saarela started the play by fighting through a check in his own end and one-handing a puck out through the neutral zone and into Providence territory. Poturalski scooped it up along the boards before curling around the bottom of the near dot and cutting to the net. He patiently waited for the Bruin defenders and goaltender Zane McIntyre to commit, then, smooth as can be, he pulled the puck to his backhand and deposited it into a yawning cage. His second of the postseason made it 1-0 Checkers 10:05 into the game.
Vellucci spoke with the media after the game about Poturalski’s opening tally:
“Well it was great. You know, They had their chances early, but we stifled them pretty good, and obviously potsi’s goal was pretty special. I mean, It was amazing, he had great patience with it, and I think he hit two or three crossbars after that. So, I thought that line played really well, I thought actually everybody played good. Good, solid, system-structured game.”
The Checkers doubled the advantage just under four minutes later, with another display of skill from that dominant line of Poturalski, Saarela, and Morgan Geekie. Geekie won an offensive zone draw to Poturalski, who dropped it to Saarela cutting behind him. Saarela then spotted Geekie open in the low slot, and Geekie forced McIntyre to make the first move before calmly slipping a backhander behind him. It was Geekie’s third of the series, and made it 2-0 Charlotte with 6:06 to play in period one.
The second period was a defensive battle, with neither team able to create much sustained offense. McIntyre was the busier of the two goaltenders, stopping nine shots compared to five denied by Nedeljkovic, but neither was tested too severely. The best chance of the period wouldn’t even go down in the stats as a shot on goal, as Poturalski dented the crossbar for the second time in the game. The second segment expired with the scoreboard still reading: Checkers 2, Bruins 0.
The Bruins looked to get back in it early in the third, but Poturalski had other plans. One minute into the final frame, the cheeky Checker poked the puck away from a Providence defender at the Charlotte blue line, and grabbed it in the neutral zone to start a two-on-one. Poturalski crossed into the Bruins zone, then slowed as he entered the slot. He glided in while intently looking pass, causing the defense and McIntyre to cheat towards the backdoor. As soon as McItyre flinched, his five-hole opened and Poturalski wasted no time in wiring the puck between the Bruins goalie’s legs and in. The goal caused the Charlotte crowd to erupt with joy, and gave the home squad a 3-0 lead with 18:56 left in the game.
After the game Poturalski spoke with the media about the poise and patience he displayed on his two tallies:
“Yeah, that’s just the style of game I like to play. Play smart with the puck and possess it as much as we can. I had a lot of space out there on both those, so I try to use that to my advantage and luckily it went it.”
The Checkers locked it down from there, and won by the final count of 3-0. With the win, Charlotte takes a commanding 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series. For Providence, they must now win two straight on the road to avoid elimination. The Checkers look in complete control though three, as their best players have led the way and put them within one win of the division final with two chances — both at home — to get it. The Bruins must find a way to contain the top line of the Checkers if they have any hope at all of winning this series. They did it for 57 minutes in a Game Two win, but even then, Poturalski struck for two points in the final three minutes of the second period.
Everything is in favor of the Checkers right now, but they must still find one more win to send the Bruins packing. The final win is the hardest to find in a series, as Providence will leave everything on the ice in an effort to extend the season. The must take it one game at a time, focusing entirely on the task at hand: winning Game Four. That game come Friday at 7:00 p.m. ET / 6:00 p.m. CT in Charlotte.
Vellucci wrapped up his postgame thoughts by answering a question about how Charlotte needs to play to eliminate Providence on Friday:
“Well, play like we’re supposed to play, and our guys have done that for the most part this year. No matter wins or losses, we’ve always come out and played pretty hard and smart. That’s been our M.O. all year, and we want to continue to do that.”
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