When the Checkers skated off the ice in Toronto just over a month ago, it was with their heads hung low and serious questions about the direction the season was heading.
They’d just been swept in a two-game set by the Marlies, and in the process, extended a franchise-long losing streak to seven games.
However, since that night, the Checkers (12-15-1) have turned things around, going 7-4 over their past 11 games.
Charlotte entered Friday night’s rematch on a franchise-best four-game winning streak at Time Warner Cable Arena, and just three points out of the eighth and final playoff spot.
Again, the North Division-leading Marlies (15-9-2) managed to outduel the Checkers, securing a 3-1 win in front of a crowd of 6,816. But this time, the Checkers’ attitude coming off the ice was remarkably different.
“We’re a better team than we were when we were in Toronto,” Checkers coach Jeff Daniels said. “They’re a very good team. I thought it was pretty even throughout all three periods and it could have (gone) either way. Tonight it went their way.”
Checkers forward Zach Boychuk, who scored his 14th goal of the season in the loss, agreed with the assessment. “They play hard, they bang, they crash, and they’ve got some big guys, but tonight could have gone either way,” he said. “It was just one of those nights.”
Friday’s loss came in the middle game of a three-games-in-three-days stretch for the Checkers that will conclude on Saturday with a noon rematch with Toronto.
Despite the three losses in three games against the Marlies this season, Charlotte players seemed almost excited to be getting right back on the ice.
“Any three-in-three is tough, especially against some really good teams,” Boychuk said. “With (Saturday’s) game coming early, I think it will be good. We can get right back out there and try to show them what we’re made of.”
The star of the game was Toronto goaltender Christopher Gibson, who stopped 32 of the Checkers’ 33 shots. Opposing Gibson was Mike Murphy, who made 35 saves despite starting in net for the first time since Dec. 7.
Both teams earned five-on-three power-plays in a penalty-filled first period, but failed to score.
In the second, Toronto took a 2-0 edge on goals from Tyler Biggs and Spencer Abbott just 43 seconds apart.
The Marlies went up 3-0 at 8:27 in the third when Brad Ross batted home a rebound that Murphy had trouble controlling.
After a Toronto double-minor for high-sticking midway through the third that will require a dentist appointment for Philippe Cornet, the Checkers finally got a puck past Gibson, when Michal Jordan found Boychuk streaking up the left side.
Boychuk dragged the puck around a Marlies defenseman and buried a shot for his fifth goal in four games.
“You have to look back at those chances,” Boychuk said. “You want to score big goals at big times and we weren’t able to do that. It was nice to get that one at the end to keep our power-play clicking, but it’s all about timing.”
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