CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Get one win. That was the goal for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on Saturday night at Bojangles Coliseum. With the next three games of their Atlantic Division Semifinal Series with the Checkers in Wilkes-Barre, a win in game two would have left them feeling good heading back north.
Instead, Charlotte’s Josiah Didier drove a stake right through their hearts, and their hopes of advancing.
Didier collected a late third period goal, Haydn Fleury scored two in the game, and Alex Ndeljkovic made 27 saves to lead the Checkers to a 4-1 win and within one victory of advancing of facing either Lehigh Valley or Providence in the Division Final.
Things started swimmingly for the Penguin, as they got onto the board just 22 seconds into the contest. Andrey Pedan’s point shot left Ndeljkovic unable to find the rebound and Joseph Cramarossa slammed it into the back of the net.
The Penguins poured it on in the opening minutes, peppering the Checkers netminder, but were unable to find the back of the net. One of the best chances came from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton rookie Adam Johnson. Johnson drove down the near side wing, cut to the slot, and put a shot through his legs that nearly went in if not for a spectacular save by Ndeljkovic.
Garrett Wilson had a sparking chance go just wide at the other end. Acentering pass from behind the net by Fleury bounced off Penguins’ goalie Tristan Jarry and in, tying the game at 13:47.
In the second period, Charlotte had several odd-man rushes that Jarry either stopped or passes couldn’t connect. Charlotte actually dominated the first 14 of the frame, and then the Penguins decided to get some legs.
A miscue by Ndeljkovic behind the net gave the puck directly to Penguins Captain Tom Kostopoulos who had an open net, but he couldn’t put it home. Minutes later, Daniel Sprong had a spinning shot from the hashmarks, but again, Ndeljkovic was equal to the task.
The third period saw the puck bounce everywhere, and the Penguins tried to take advantage. The best chance of the period came when Jarrett Burton hit the post from the top of the slot. The shot was so close that it was reviewed by the officials for several minutes at the next stoppage albeit to no avail.
A few minutes after that miss, Didier struck. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton iced the puck with 4:22 left, and the ensuing faceoff cost them big time. Didier would fire a one-timer through traffic that Jarry never saw for his first of the playoffs with assists from Janne Kuokkanen and Nicolas Roy.
The game was a lot closer than the score probably indicates, as Charlotte added two empty-net goals in the final minutes. The Penguins now find themselves facing a momentous challenge. Will the impending retire of Kostopoulos lead them to will out a victory in game three? We’ll find out Thursday night in Wilkes-Barre.
Notes: Christian Thomas and Tom Sestito were scratched in favor of Burton and Anthony Angello. It was Angello’s professional playoff debut.
3 Stars: 3) WBS – Joseph Cramarossa (Goal)
2) CHA – Josiah Didier (Game-Winning Goal)
1) CHA – Haydn Fleury (Two Goals, Assist)