Is Charlotte becoming a hockey town? The Checkers road to the Calder Cup might make you think so.
Goalkeeper Alex Nedeljkovic shut down the Chicago attack Wednesday night, leading the Charlotte Checkers to a 4-1 victory over the Wolves in Game 3 of the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup Finals.
The win gives the Checkers a 2-1 game lead in the best-of-7 series, which resumes with Game 4 at 8 p.m. Thursday at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois.
Nedeljkkovic made 38 saves, including several spectacular stops in the first period, when the Wolves outshot Charlotte 15-6.
As was the case in the first two games of the series in Charlotte, the Checkers scored quickly. Julien Gauthier, who was injured in the final game of the Eastern Conference finals against Toronto and hadn’t played since, scored at the 1:51 mark.
Jake Bean took a shot from the left point, and Gauthier, standing just outside the goal, deflected the puck past Chicago goaltender Oscar Dansk.
Nedeljkovic was the dominant figure of the period.
He made a big save on Chicago’s Keegan Kolesar about 11 minutes into the period and then stopped back-to-back point-blank shots by Gage Quinney a minute later. But the most spectacular stop came with 2:20 left in the period. Chicago’s Brooks Masek broke free, but his slap shot was kicked away by Nedeljkovic.
The Checkers’ special teams accounted for two second-period goals.
With Chicago’s T.J. Tynan in the penalty box, defenseman Jake Bean got his first goal of the playoffs, as his slap shot flew past four Wolves players, over Dansk’s right shoulder and into the net. That came just 2:16 into the period.
The Checkers’ penalty-kill unit accounted for the third goal. With Haydn Fleury in the penalty box for cross-checking, Charlotte’s Patrick Brown stole the puck at center ice, muscled his way past a defender, and scored on a wrist shot.
It was the sixth short-handed goal in the past six games for Charlotte, which had the best penalty-kill unit in the AHL during the regular season.
Nedeljkovic made several outstanding saves early in the third period until the Wolves broke through, scoring on a Brooks Macek goal with 5:11 remaining.
Chicago pulled its goaltender with 3:55 left, and Martin Necas scored an empty-net goal to clinch the victory.
The Wolves played without Curtis McKenzie, their leading goal scorer in the playoffs, after he received a one-game suspension for his role in a fight near the end of Sunday’s Game 2. And Chicago’s Daniel Carr, the AHL Most Valuable Player during the regular season, did not play in the third period. There was no immediate word if he had been injured.
3 who mattered
Alex Nedeljkovic, Charlotte: He stopped 38 of 39 shots, with perhaps his best performance of the playoffs.
Patrick Brown, Charlotte: The Checkers’ captain scored a short-handed goal in the second period and assisted on the team’s final goal.
Jake Bean, Charlotte: Bean got an assist on Charlotte’s first goal and scored the second goal on a power play.
▪ Checkers coach Mike Vellucci told reporters in Rosemont that the team’s play in the third period Sunday, when they held the Wolves to four shots, is the way to hold on to the lead. Chicago came back from 3-1 deficits in both of the first two games. “We didn’t take any crazy chances,” Vellucci said of the third period. “We managed the puck better. We were way smarter.”
▪ Prior to Sunday night’s 5-3 loss, Chicago was 11-0 in the playoffs and 40-3 this season when scoring three or more goals in a game.
▪ According to the AHL, the Checkers scored five short-handed goals in their first 11 games of the season, then just one in their next 76 games. Now they’ve scored six short-handed goals in their last six games.
The teams play Game 4 at 8 p.m. Thursday. The game will air on AHLTV but will be carried on a tape-delay (2 p.m. Friday) on the NHL Network because of a conflict with Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final.
AHL Calder Cup Finals
Game 1: Wolves 4, Checkers 3 (OT)
Game 2: Checkers 5, Wolves 3
Game 3: Checkers 4, Wolves 1
Thursday, June 6, 8 p.m.: at Chicago
Saturday, June 8, 8 p.m.: at Chicago
Thursday, June 13, 7 p.m.: at Charlotte*
Friday, June 14, 7 p.m.: at Charlotte*