CHARLOTTE, N.C. – For 40 minutes on Friday night, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins looked to be on their way to a victory in their best-of-five first-round series against the Charlotte Checkers to open the Calder Cup Playoffs.
They were finishing their checks and crisp with their passes. On the other side, Charlotte looked off. Passes weren’t connecting, and the Checkers were playing on their heels.
After 40 minutes? Well, that was an entirely different story.
Aleksi Saarela and Valentin Zykov tallied goals five minutes apart in the third period, and Lucas Wallmark tipped in a Julian Gauthier shot just 3:12 into overtime to give the Checkers’ a stunning game one win at Bojangles’ Coliseum.
It wasn’t an optimal start for the Penguins, but it was one head coach Clark Donatelli had to be happy with. They were getting chances, and if not for Alex Nedjelkovic, this game could have had an entirely different story. The Penguins took too many penalties, including a 22 second 5-on-3, that the Penguins skillfully killed off. By the end of the frame, Charlotte already had four power plays. They finished the night one for seven with the extra-man.
For Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Tristan Jarry shined, stopping Andrew Poturalski twice on one-timers from the half wall that looked almost certain to be going into wide open cages. Andrey Pedan got the Penguins on the board first at 17:44. He rifled a point shot through traffic on the power play that beat Nedjelkovic and suddenly, the visitors were up one.
An incredible bit of misfortune found Charlotte’s netminder in the second. and it doubled the Penguins’ lead. Midway through the period on a dump in, Daniel Sprong flipped a puck into the Checkers end. Instead of playing the bounce cleanly, Nedjelkovic flat out missed it. The puck went over his glove and, just like that, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton was up by two.
Then the third period happened.
Now, there’s one of two way to look at this: Either the Penguins’ effort went away, or Charlotte woke up. So what’s the correct answer? It was probably a bit of both. Charlotte started attacking rather than sitting back, and the Penguins seemed bewildered by what was happening. After Saarela got Charlotte on the board from between the circles at 6:32, you could tell what was coming.
Jean-Sebastien Dea made an ill-advised cross-zone pass on a penalty kill, and that was all it took. Former Penguin Greg McKegg knocked the puck out of the air and got the puck on net, Jarry gave up a rebound that came right to Zykov, and the AHL’s leading goal scorer from the regular season tied the game in the blink of an eye.
The Penguins settled down after that, and the game went to overtime.
The extra session lasted all of 3:18, and Charlotte had possession of the puck for nearly all of that time. Gauthier got a shot from the right point that found its way through a mass of bodies and was tipped by Wallmark to end the game. Jarry protested vehemently that he was interfered with, but the officials weren’t listening. In fact, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Bench was handed a game misconduct for abuse of officials after the goal.
No matter now, this Penguins team needs to find a way to play a full 60 minutes, or risk going home down two games to none with absolutely no margin for error.
Up Next: It’s a short turnaround as these two teams faceoff tonight at 6 PM at Bojangles Coliseum.