CHARLOTTE – In the third period of Game 1 of the Calder Cup Finals with the score tied at three, the Charlotte Checkers found themselves hemmed in their own end.
Thirty seconds turned into a minute turned into 90 seconds turned into upwards of two minutes.
The Chicago Wolves worked the puck around the perimeter as if they were orchestrating a power play. They thwarted attempted clears at the blue line and retrieved pucks in the corner with a dogged attitude.
The Checkers’ five-man unit was gassed, but they weren’t exactly scrambling. They were disciplined and committed to their defensive zone structure.
“Bend but don’t break,” Checkers head coach Mike Vellucci said after the game.
As the Wolves maintained possession, the cheers from the record-setting Bojangles’ Coliseum crowd of 8.465 grew louder, the partial hometown fans desperate to see their team clear the puck, cover the puck – something, anything to survive a grueling, nail-biting shift that seemed destined to end in a momentum-shifting goal for the visiting team.
Then, Haydn Fleury, who played in 20 regular season games and nine playoff games for the Carolina Hurricanes this season, got the puck on his tape with room to skate. Running on pure fumes, he charged down the ice on a 2-on-1, and had his shot found twine to give the Checkers a 4-3 lead after *that* shift in his own end, the structural integrity of the historic Coliseum roof would have been challenged.
The Wolves didn’t record a scoring chance, Vellucci said, and the Checkers survived. Exhale.
That shift was a learning experience among many in the Checkers’ first-ever Calder Cup Finals appearance, which they went on to drop in overtime by a 4-3 score.
What else did the American Hockey League’s youngest team learn in Game 1?
“It’s hard. It’s hard to play hockey. It’s hard to play in June,” Vellucci said. “It’s hard to win games against big, older teams. It’s hard to get pucks out at the blue line. It’s hard to box out. Your body is sore. You’re tired. It’s been a long two months. You’ve just got to find a way. I’m really proud of the way they’ve competed until this point, but it’s only one game right now.”
It’s only one game, and being down 1-0 at home in a best-of-seven series is not an unfamiliar situation for the Checkers. In fact, it happened just a series ago against the Toronto Marlies, another tight-matched, one-goal loss. The Checkers then erased a three-goal deficit in Game 2 to even the ledger before heading to Toronto.
“No one ever likes to lose, but we had a whole bunch of guys saying positive things right as we got in [the locker room],” Checkers captain Patrick Brown said. “Forget about it. We’ve been in this spot before. We’re going to respond tomorrow.”
There’s good reason to be confident in a Game 2 rebound, considering the Checkers have yet to lose consecutive games in their path to the Finals.
“Going up 3-1 in the first period, we had all the momentum, but we slowly let it slip away. That’s not the way we wanted it to go, but stuff happens in playoffs. It’s not going to be easy at this level in the Calder Cup Finals,” said Andrew Poturalski, who scored the Checkers’ third goal in the final minute of the first period. “Not going to lose much sleep here. We’ll get right back at it tomorrow, be ready to go and hopefully even up the series.”
The Checkers will get right back at it on Sunday evening, with Game 2 slated for 6 p.m. at Bojangles’ Coliseum.