CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Charlotte Checkers and Hershey Bears combined for five goals in a frantic opening fifteen minutes on Friday, but that was all the offense in game one of the Atlantic Division Finals.
Hershey came in looking to defend its way to victory as it had in round one against Bridgeport, but instead, it was Charlotte who carried over its winning ways from the previous series. Charlotte’s offense was far too much for Providence in the Atlantic Division Semis, and, at least on Friday, it was too much for the Hershey defense as well. The Checkers blitzed the Bears with four goals in the first twelve minutes and coasted from there to a comfortable 4-1 victory in game one.
The Checkers opened the scoring just 1:42 into the game, as Julien Gauthier bagged his second of the postseason. Eric Williams scooped the puck up after a faceoff win in the Charlotte zone, and flung it out to the neutral zone to Gauthier. Gauthier dropped the puck to Nick Schilkey as they crossed paths entering the Bears zone, causing the defenders to collide and opening a lane for Schilkey to send Gauthier in on a partial breakaway. Gauthier quickly pulled the puck to his forehand and wired a shot that flew between the legs of Hershey goalie Vitek Vanecek and rippled the mesh.
The Checkers doubled the advantage two minutes and fourteen seconds later, this time striking off a faceoff win in the offensive zone. Andrew Poturalski won the draw to Aleksi Saarela along the boards, Saarela danced through the circle and the Hershey defense before finding Derek Sheppard wide open at the top of the slot. Sheppard blasted a slapper that beat Vanecek’s skate to the post and made it 2-0 Checkers 3:56 into the first. The secondary assist for Poturalski extended his point streak to five games (5G, 5A, 10Pts.) to start the playoffs.
Hershey was able to stop the bleeding for a little while, but midway through the frame, Charlotte would again strike twice in quick succession. First, 10:27 into the opening frame, Saarela found the scoresheet again, this time as the goal scorer himself. Morgan Geekie set it up by winning a battle along the boards behind the Hershey net then spinning and delivering a pass right onto the tape of Saarela open in the slot. Saarela quickly launched a shot by the blocker of Vanecek and in to make it 3-0 in favor of the home squad.
The Checkers had it rolling, and just 65 seconds later they made the lead 4-0. Steven Lorentz sent a pass from the low corner up to Bobby Sanguinetti who gathered it along the boards at the near point. Sanguinetti then wound up and unleashed a rocket that tipped off the stick of Stelio Mattheos before eluding Vanecek and tickling the twine. Mattheos first turned out to be the last of the night for Charlotte, but the damage had already been done.
Give Hershey credit, they responded well and put Charlotte under pressure for the remainder of the first period. The Bears’ efforts paid off with 4:22 left in the frame, when Chris McCarthy crashed the net hard and was able to put the rebound of a Connor Hobbs shot past Charlotte goalie Dustin Tokarski. McCarthy’s second brought Hershey back within three and gave his side a sliver of hope going into the second period.
Tokarski made the start for the Checkers in place of Alex Nedeljkovic, who had started all four games against the Bruins before being called up to NHL Carolina. Tokarski was good when called upon, especially late in the first period, but the Charlotte defense kept him from having to deal with many chances against over the final two frames. The Checkers outshot the Bears 23-14 between the second and third periods, easily gliding in for the landing in a 4-1 triumph.
The Bears made sure to send the message that this was but one game of a long series, however, fighting to the horn both figuratively and literally. Tempers flared after a whistle with three seconds to play, leading to a gathering of sorts and what can only be described as a kerfuffle. Penalties were dished out to each side, but the tone for tomorrow looks to have already been set. Expect this series to only get more physical as it goes on.
It was a well-deserved victory for the Checkers, and leaves the Bears in need of major adjustments for game two. Hershey knows it must start better on Saturday, as it quickly dug a hole on Friday that was too big to dig out of. The Bears will likely make a switch in goal, but not because Vanecek surrendered four in game one. He and Ilya Samsonov split time in the opening round against Bridgeport, and there is no reason to think that won’t continue. Samsonov was 2-1 with a goals against average of 1.61 and a save percentage of .945 against the Sound Tigers in the first round, and was 1-0 (1.00 GAA, .967 SV%) against the Bears in the regular season.
There is not much time for adjustments between games, with game two set to begin less than 24 hours after the puck dropped to begin the series. Faceoff for the second segment of this series is set for Saturday at 6:00 p.m. ET/5:00 p.m. CT from Bojangles’ Coliseum in Charlotte, North Carolina.
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