CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Charlotte Checkers played host to the Toronto Marlies in game six of the Eastern Conference Final Sunday, where overtime determined if there would be handshakes or a game seven.
The Checkers came into game six needing just one more win to advance to their first Calder Cup Final, while the defending champion Marlies were trying to keep their season and hopes of back-to-back Calder Cup titles alive. The atmosphere was electric, as Charlotte had a team-record 8,393 people in attendance inside Bojangles’ Coliseum. The game proceeded as you would expect given the circumstances, with neither team backing off or giving an inch of ground to the other.
The opening goal of the night came with just nine seconds left in the first and was the culmination of a solid minute of pressure from Charlotte. The one that finally crossed the line was the third golden chance of the final minute and was set up when Tomas Jurco held a puck in at the point and sent a shot wide of goal. The puck hit the boards behind the net and ricocheted out to Martin Necas coming from the opposite side. Toronto goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo got post-to-post quickly, but Necas wrapped around behind and sent a pass into the crease from the other side. Patrick Brown was there waiting, and he forced the puck over the line to give the Checkers a 1-0 lead to take to the first intermission.
Charlotte went ahead by a pair just over five minutes into period two, as Clark Bishop cashed in off the rush while a man short. Toronto sent a shot wide of goal, and Bishop picked the puck up and took off streaking up the far boards. He was able to gain inside position on the Marlie defender as he cut in on goal, protecting the puck as he gained the edge before quickly pulling it to his forehand at the last second and sending a shot through Kaskisuo to make it 2-0 Checkers. It was the fourth shorthanded tally in three games for Charlotte, compared to two Toronto power play goals over that time. This has been a significant factor in the Checkers grabbing control of the series.
Toronto was given a great chance to get back in it moments later, however, as a questionable call on Charlotte for closing a hand on the puck in the crease led to a penalty shot. It looked like the Checker d-man swatted the puck out of the blue paint, but the complaints of the cardinal-clad crowd and players went for naught. The Marlies cashed in, as Dmytro Timashov came in with speed before faking a shot and cheekily allowing the puck to continue it’s path between the legs of Alex Nedeljkovic and to the back of the cage. The goal pulled Toronto back within one with 13:50 left in the middle stanza.
The Marlies then pulled even five and half minutes later, taking full advantage of a lucky break. Toronto came in on a two-on-one, but Nedeljkovic got across to make a splendid save on a backdoor effort. He was eliminated from the play, however, as his own man came sliding through the crease and took the netminder out at the legs. The puck bounced out to Andreas Borgman coming in from the left point, and he immediately blasted a slapper dead center of the yawning cage to make it 2-2 with 8:25 left in period two.
Toronto then pulled ahead with 3:12 left in the second segment, again just over five minutes after the previous tally. The go-ahead marker came after a diving poke-check in the slot knocked the puck to Jeremy Bracco at the top of the zone. He quickly circled and sent a pass to Calle Rosen at the right point. Rosen sent a shot through a screen and past Nedeljkovic without the Charlotte keeper seeing a thing. Their third unanswered goal of the period gave the Marlies the lead for the first and only time of the evening, but it was very short-lived.
Toronto held the lead for a mere 76 seconds before Charlotte was able to strike to equalize with under two minutes left in the second. The tying tally came on the power play, as Geekie sent a pass from the top of the slot down to Jurco at the far dot, who sent a one-touch pass through the slot to Brown at the near dot. Brown sent a shot on goal that deflected off a Toronto player and fluttered over the glove of Kaskisuo. Brown’s second of the evening made it 3-3 with 1:56 left in period two.
The third period was all Toronto, as Charlotte was forced to defend for nearly the entire period. The Marlies enjoyed three power-play opportunities and held a 15-3 edge in shots in the final frame of regulation. None of that matters if you don’t score, of course, and Nedeljkovic held his ground with 15 saves to guide his squad into the extra frame.
The first overtime was mainly a defensive stalemate but featured a couple of close calls. First, just three minutes in, Kaskisuo was forced to make a point-blank save on a one-timer in tight to keep his side alive. The Marlies gathered the biscuit and took off the other way, drawing a phantom penalty off the rush to gain a man advantage. The penalty was a weak call as the Toronto player appeared to lose his edge cutting in on goal. Karma was there for the Checkers, though, and the penalty was killed with relative ease. The best chance of period four came with just 30 seconds on the clock, as Haydn Fleury came flying in on the rush and sent a shot off the iron and out to keep Toronto alive for the time being.
A second overtime was needed to decide it, but it didn’t take long of the second extra period to find a winner. The East-winning moment occurred just 1:52 into the period. The goal only happened thanks to a blown call by the officials, which was honestly a fitting way to end a game in which everyone had an issue with the way the game was officiated.
The play in question came as a Charlotte shot clearly deflected off Kaskisuo and into the netting above the near boards before quickly dropping back onto the playing surface. Everyone seemed to slow waiting for the whistle with two Charlotte players even pointing to the netting. The whistle never came, however, and Toronto gathered the rubber disc and took off on a three-on-two. The Marlies then turned it over in the neutral zone, though, setting up their ultimate demise. Fleury picked it up and sent the puck to Steven Lorentz coming into the zone. His first effort was directed to the corner by Kaskisuo, but Lorentz followed the rebound and immediately sent a shot back towards the short-side shelf. Kaskisuo shrugged it off, but the puck flipped up into the air and came down right as Geekie came looking for leftovers. The puck hit Geekie as he entered the crease and deflected from his stick to the back of the net to end the series and initiate the handshakes.
After the game, Geekie was asked what he saw on the conference-winning goal:
“you know, not muCh,” Geekie sTated. “Loren (Lorentz) made a great play getting the puck to the net and I just kinda put my head down aNd went there and good things happened, so that’s about it.”
Geekie then spoke about the feeling of advancing to the Final:
“You know, it’s good. We’re all happy, definitely not satisfied. There is a lot of work to be done, and we’re definitely excited to get going Saturday.”
Brown, who wears the ‘C’ for Charlotte, also spoke with the media after the game, praising his squads’ heart and confidence:
“What a team win, I thought. You know we were short a couple guys at the end there, bumps and bruises, playoff hockey,” Brown said. “But I thought we stuck together and never stopped believing, and we got the outcome we came for.”
With the triumph, Charlotte claims its first conference crown in team history and will advance to face either Chicago or San Diego in the Calder Cup Final. The Checkers have home-ice against whomever they play, with game one set for Saturday at 7:00 p.m. ET/6:00 p.m. CT from southern North Carolina.
The six days off couldn’t come at a better time for Charlotte either. Checkers Head Coach Mike Vellucci emphasized this in his postgame press conference:
“Rest, Rest. That’s all there is, it’s all we can do right now is rest,” Vellucci opened. “That’s the key is get as much rest as possible. You got a lot of guys (who) had the flu and are dragging pretty hard right now. So, get some days off, that’s why tonight was so important to get so that we can get some days off.”
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