CHARLOTTE, NC – In a reversal of fortunes from their meeting on Tuesday night, Wednesday night’s contest between the Lehigh Valley Phantoms and Charlotte Checkers turned out to be a defensive battle. One would not know that from the 5-2 final, which was in favor of the Checkers, but a closer look at the game would show that both John Muse and Jeremy Smith played fantastic for their clubs.
Muse got the start for the Phantoms after his spectacular 25 save relief effort on Tuesday night, which earned him his first win on the Lehigh Valley roster. Smith opposed him, coming off a 22 save performance against the Wilkes-barre/Scranton Penguins last Friday. Both goalies were tested early.
The first period saw both teams get penalized heavily, leading to a lot of open ice and scoring opportunities. Twice the teams went to 4-on-4 action after it seemed like one team was starting to build momentum, but sandwiched between those two instances was the games opening goal, on the first period’s only full power play. Charlotte received the man advantage, with Chris Conner off for hooking.
On that chance, the Checkers went right to work and got the scoring started just 20 seconds into the power play. A shot from Brenden Kichton got stopped by Muse, and when the puck started to bounce around the crease, Muse went into the full snow angel, thinking he had the puck underneath him. It was still loose in the scrum in the blue paint and kicked out to Charlotte captain Patrick Brown, who popped the empty twine over the down and out Muse to get the lone goal of the first and get things going for the Checkers.
Charlotte got another power-play goal 1:39 into the second, extending their lead. A point shot from Trevor Carrick rebounded off the pad of Muse, out to the left circle. There, Andrew Miller found it and sent it back to the net mouth, where Valentin Zykov accepted the pass and roofed a shot into the top shelf to make it 2-0. The Checkers were not done there, adding two more goals in the second off 11 shots on goal to extend their lead all the way to 4-0. Andrew Poturalski fired home a blast of a shot that would rival some of the laser weapons you will see in the new Star Wars this weekend, riffling it home from the top of the right circle off a drop pass from Warren Foegele to make it 3-0. The goal also happened to be Poturalskis fourth goal in the last four games for the Checkers.
Brown got his second of the night making it 4-0, driving the net with his stick down and flipping a pass from Aleski Saarela up into the net. From there, the Phantoms started to surge back, unwilling to be completely dominated in the contest. Lehigh Valley registered 18 shots on goal during the second frame, but Smith stood tall and kept the Checkers lead at four until the final minutes.
In that final minute, however, Matt Read would get a goal back while on the power play for the Phantoms, tipping home a shot from Oskar Lindblom at the right side boards to finally get them on the board. The goal came with 42 seconds left in the period, with the Checkers trying to keep Lehigh Valley at bay till the intermission. They did so, with the lead still at three and hoping the momentum gained would die out during the break.
The Phantoms had other plans, coming out flying to start the final 20 minutes. They got to within two just 2:39 in, with Radel Fazleev getting his first of the year by tipping in a centering pass from Mark Friedman to the slot on a rush to make it 4-2. Unfortunately for the Phantoms, that would be as close as they would get. Smith proved to be the difference in the third, stopping nine of the ten shots he faced to help preserve the two-goal lead. A good three or four of those stops came while the Phantoms were on the power play during the middle of the period, and a majority of the rest came with Lehigh Valley pressuring in the final minutes.
Weathering the storm and keeping the lead eventually led to Miller being able to pot the empty netter to seal the deal, making it a split for the two games played at the Bojangles Coliseum by these two new division rivals. Bad blood has yet to surface between the two clubs, but one might speculate that come crunch time at the end of the season, tempers may flare if playoff seeding is on the line. These two teams will meet again for two more back to back contests in Allentown at the end of the month, so maybe the rivalry will start to bud there.
3rd: Andrew Poturalski(CHA) – Goal, +1
2nd: Jeremy Smith(CHA) – 35 saves, win
1st: Patrick Brown(CHA) – 2 goals, +1