The AHL’s all-time shutouts leader struck again Saturday night, blanking the Grand Rapids Griffins 3-0 to clinch a weekend sweep by the Checkers.
Charlotte flipped the script from last night’s come from behind victory, banking two goals quickly in regulation. First was Valentin Zykov chipping in a rebound out front on the man advantage, followed shortly by the captain Derek Ryan deflecting a shot through traffic and in to give the home squad a 2-0 lead.
That two-goal advantage would prove to be enough. The Griffins mounted several rally attempts, including one on a power play late in regulation, but couldn’t find a way through the Checkers’ stifling defensive play. Facing an extra Grand Rapids attacker, Charlotte would find the back of the net one more time, with Ryan busting his way down the ice for an empty-net tally that sealed the 3-0 victory.
The star of the night was Leighton, who notched his 47th career shutout by turning aside all 30 shots the Griffins sent his way.
“Leightsy was probably our best player down the stretch there,” said Ryan. “He kept us the lead, and we owe a lot of credit to him. Goaltending was a big question mark last year in our season where it kind of went up and down. Leighton gives us that consistency.”
“We knew they weren’t going to give up,” said Leighton of the Griffins. “We really didn’t give up much. I think that’s what you’ve got to do later in the season and you’ve got to learn how to play like that in those kinds of games.”
“Leighton was seeing beach balls out there,” said head coach Ulf Samuelsson. “He was really solid and the D were good around the net helping with rebounds. We got it together in the third and played a lot more disciplined and played the way we have to to win.”
While the goaltending took the headlines, the Checkers top offensive trio of Ryan, Zykov and Brock McGinn played a key part in getting the Checkers an early lead they could run with.
“I think we’re doing pretty well,” said Ryan of his line, who were responsible for all three Charlotte goals. “Even writing off the first weekend in Texas, everything after that we’ve had lots of chances. Z is one of those players that I like to play with. He’s a big body, he holds the puck down low and he can go in on the forecheck and get the puck back for us. Ginner and I have had chemistry going back to last season, so it’s just kind of coming together and the puck is going in for us finally.”
Ryan has continued his scorching start to the season, bringing his point total to 10 through the first 6 games. He’s been a driving force behind his line’s early success.
“They’ve been tremendous the whole year,” said Samuelsson. “I think Derek Ryan is a very top-end player in this league and he’s certainly leading the way with that line. The other two guys are right there with him.”
Picking up two wins in front of an energetic home crowd is a big boost for a team that struggled with some consistency to start the year.
“Winning games is fun and brings the team together,” said Ryan. “Everybody wants to have that feeling in their dressing room all the time – especially at home. We want to make this building a hard building to play in for the road team and we’ve done that so far. When you’re winning you want to keep playing. The best part about it is that we can get back on the ice Wednesday and try to keep this ball rolling.”
With their first win streak under their belts, the Checkers head into their shortest break of the season thus far, hosting the Rockford IceHogs on Wednesday and Thursday. Even with the four points in the standings from the weekend, there’s still plenty of work ahead.
“Just playing with confidence,” said Leighton of the key to keeping the momentum going. “I think earlier this season we’d win one, we’d get too overconfident, we’d lose and then we’d come back and try to win again. With a couple of wins in a row now we know what it takes. We’re playing better as a team and we’ve just got to keep going into Wednesday’s game.”
“We’re going to have a little Halloween party tonight that’ll be fun and enjoy this weekend, and then a day of rest Sunday and we’ve got two days where we’re working on things that we’re not really happy with yet.”