Checkers have their season on the line in return to home ice Saturday

·3 min read
Courtest of the Springfield Thunderbirds

The Charlotte Checkers return home Saturday evening, with no wiggle room and trying to bounce back from an especially difficult loss.

Game 3 of the Checkers’ AHL Atlantic Division finals series against the Springfield Thunderbirds is set for 6 p.m. at Bojangles Coliseum.

It’s a best-of-five series, and the Checkers trail 0-2. They’ll need to sweep the final three games of the series at home.

The two opening games in the series were played in Massachusetts. In the opener last Sunday, the Checkers were hammered 6-0, but it was Wednesday’s 4-3 loss that will be challenging to overcome.

Charlotte led the Thunderbirds 3-2 in the closing minutes of the game and seemed headed back home with a 1-1 series tie — and a home-ice advantage the rest of the way.

Springfield tied the game with 3:05 remaining when Klim Kostin’s shot deflected off Will Bitten and slid past Checkers’ goalkeeper Joey Daccord.

With 2:14 remaining, Springfield’s Tommy Cross appeared to pull down the Checkers’ Max McCormick in front of Charlotte’s goal. Both players were given two-minute minor penalties. Then with 26 seconds left, Checkers’ defenseman Cale Fleury was whistled for kneeing.

That gave Springfield a 4-3 edge in skaters, and James Neal deflected a shot from teammate Brady Lyle into the net — with just 5 seconds left.

In three minutes, Charlotte had gone from a series tie to being in a 0-2 hole.

“We played well — keep going,” Checkers’ head coach Geordie Kinnear said when asked what he told the team after the disappointing finish.

“It was a great effort by everybody,” Kinnear added. “I thought we played a real good road game in a tough building. That’s a really good hockey team.

“I’m disappointed by the outcome, for numerous reasons.”

Charlotte out-shot Springfield 50-29.

Six Checkers took five or more shots, with Zac Dalpe scoring a pair of goals in the first period, and Alexander True got the team’s third goal, in the third period.

Referees Justin Kiea and Brandon Schrader called 19 minor penalties and two misconducts. That compares to nine penalties called in Game 1. And there was an average of 8.5 penalties called in each of the four games in Charlotte’s previous playoff series.

Kinnear was asked about the officiating and responded, “I’m not sure how the game was called in the third period, to be quite honest with you.”

This marks the first time in 11 years that the Checkers have dropped the opening two games in a Calder Cup playoff series. The other time was in 2011, when Charlotte was swept 4-0 in the Eastern Conference finals by Binghamton, which went on to win the AHL title.

The two losses in Springfield marked the first time since late February that Charlotte had dropped consecutive games. But the Checkers have had trouble with the Thunderbirds this season. They went 0-3-1 in Springfield and 2-1-1 at home.

“We know it’s a good hockey team over there,” Kinnear said.

One change Checkers fans might notice Saturday from earlier in the season is seeing defenseman Chase Priskie playing forward. Kinnear moved Priskie to the front line Wednesday.

“He’s a big part of what we do,” Kinnear said. “On the power play, he’s on the point. We’ve asked guys to step into different roles throughout the year.”

Should the Checkers win Saturday, the teams will be right back at it in a Game 4 at 6 p.m. Sunday. A potential Game 5 will be at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

The series winner advances to the Eastern Conference finals, a best-of-seven series against the North Division champion Laval Rocket.

Steve Lyttle on Twitter: @slyttle