Returning home looked to be just what the Checkers needed, as they trampled the Manitoba Moose by a score of 4-2.
The Checkers took off running to start the game, doubling up Manitoba in shots 14-7, but it was only the Moose who found the back of the net in the period, courtesy of a fancy move and shot by Chase De Leo.
After spending much of the second period in search of the equalizer, the Checkers found it on a late two-man advantage, as Sergey Tolchinsky slid a pass through the crease to a waiting Lucas Wallmark on the back post for an easy tap-in goal. The home team then pounced on the reeling Moose, as Haydn Fleury popped in a rebound in front less than a minute later to put Charlotte ahead 2-1 after 40 minutes of play.
The Checkers were handed another 5-on-3 opportunity early on in the third and again capitalized, with Fleury ripping a point blast that trickled over the line for his second tally of the night. The Moose would respond shortly after with a power-play goal of their own, but it would be too little, too late, as the Checkers held on and added an empty netter to clinch the 4-2 victory.
For head coach Ulf Samuelsson, the key to the win was simple.
“I thought we moved the puck well and shot a lot early, which gave us an opportunity to use our skill later on in the power play when they got tired,” said Fleury of the special teams play. “I thought it was a good all-around effort.”
Making his return to game action after missing the last seven contests to injury, Fleury was a force for Charlotte.
“He came out to play a really strong game,” said Samuelsson. “His teammates were quick to give him the player of the game. That’s pretty much as good of a start as you can have.”
Having watched his teammates struggle through the recent road trip, the rookie was eager to contribute.
“I was excited,” said Fleury. “Not playing, sitting around by myself and not being with the boys – I was excited. I hadn’t seen most of them until this morning. I thought I had a little bit of an extra jump tonight and I got two lucky bounces.”
Charlotte’s kryptonite over this last winless skid has been an inability to score goals, as the team has more often than not failed to score more than two goals in a single game. Tonight’s game saw them break past that threshold and get rewarded for it, and a big part of that came from the blue line.
“It’s nice whenever you get goals from the back end,” said Fleury, who notched the first multi-goal game of his pro career. “[Jake Chelios] had a big night tonight with three assists. This made it really easy on me. There were a lot of good things that contributed to all the goals.”
In net for Charlotte was Daniel Altshuller, making just his second start of the season and his first at home. The third-year pro came up big, helping the Checkers snap a seven-game winless streak.
“He was solid, gave us a chance to win and made a couple of really big saves,” said Samuelsson. “This league is pretty even, so you’re going to need a couple of big saves when you have some breakdowns.”
Altshuller, who was in the ECHL until Michael Leighton’s NHL recall last month, has spent much of his time with the Checkers thus far this season serving as a backup but looked poised jumping into action tonight, something he attributes to his experience.
“I’ve been there before, it’s just part of being a pro hockey player,” said Altshuller. “You come into situations where you don’t know what you’re going to see, and it helps a lot. It’s one thing I struggled with when I was a rookie. You learn as you go, and you just get that from experience.
“Tonight I felt pretty good – anxious. I was in the groove. I’ve been around the guys for a month now, so I just stepped in there, made the first couple of saves and went on from there.”
The Checkers haven’t spent much time defending late leads over the last few weeks, but Altshuller stood tall tonight as the Moose threw everything they had at them in the final moments.
“I think it’s just hard work,” said Altshuller of his play down the stretch. “You don’t really need to worry about rebounds in the last two minutes because you know your guys are going to be there for you and blocking shots. You’ve just got to be able to react to anything because anything could happen. It could be a blocked shot or a shot that goes off the side and you’ve got to dive for it. You’re just in battle mode and you’ve got to do as much as you can to get in front of the puck.”
The win moved the Checkers to 7-2-0 at home, a staggeringly different record than their mark on the road (3-11-2).
“Sometimes it goes like that – streaky for no particular reason,” said Samuelsson. “We feel comfortable at home here. We get support from our fans and we go from there.”
The Checkers will be back in front of those fans tomorrow night against this same Manitoba team, a squad that will no doubt be looking to avenge tonight’s final.
“They’re going to be upset now and wanting to get back at us tomorrow,” said Samuelsson. “We have to realize that they’re going to raise their level of play a little bit, and we’ve got to do the same thing.”