Is Charlotte becoming a hockey town? The Checkers road to the Calder Cup might make you think so.
The Charlotte Checkers spotted Chicago an early lead but roared back with four straight goals Thursday night for a 5-3 victory, moving within one victory of their first Calder Cup.
The Checkers now have a 3-1 game edge in the best-of-7 playoff finals and can win the American Hockey League championship in Game 5 Saturday night in Rosemont, Illinois.
Chicago, losing for the second straight night on its home ice at Allstate Arena, had rallied twice earlier in the playoffs from a 2-1 game deficit. But the Checkers’ surge over the final 21 minutes Thursday night prevented that.
Nicolas Roy scored twice in the final period, and Aleksi Saarela netted the decisive goal.
Checkers goaltender Dustin Tokarski, touched for three goals in the opening 34 minutes of play, blanked the Wolves in the final 26 minutes.
The Checkers scored early goals in the first three games of the series, but the Wolves got a quick goal Thursday. Nic Hague took a pass from Zach Whitecloud in the Chicago end and skated across center ice, past several Charlotte defenders, and tucked the puck past Tokarski.
That happened just 45 seconds into the first period – the fastest opening goal in the Calder Cup Finals in two seasons.
It took less than four minutes for the Checkers to even the score. With a defender skating toward him, Checkers defenseman Jesper Sellgren unleashed a slap shot from near the red line. The puck skidded through several players and into the Wolves’ goal.
Another slap shot, this one by Chicago’s Zac Leslie with 3:31 left in the period, put the Wolves back on top. As was the case with Sellgren’s goal, Leslie’s shot got through several players and past Tokarski.
Each team scored once in the second period. The Checkers dominated the opening 12 minutes, outshooting Chicago 7-0, but the Wolves got the first goal.
Tokarski stopped a shot by Dylan Coghlin, but the puck rebounded out to Brooks Macek, who scored with 6:13 left in the period.
Charlotte narrowed the gap to 3-2 with a minute remaining, as Martin Necas took a pass from Tomas Jurco and swatted the puck over Wolves’ goalie Oscar Dansk, who had fallen onto the ice in an effort to defend Necas.
The Checkers tied the game just 32 seconds in the third period on Roy’s first goal, which was set up with a pinpoint pass from Julien Gauthier.
Charlotte pulled ahead with 7:08 remaining, when Saarela scored on a blistering shot that sailed under the outstretched right arm of Dansk.
The Wolves pulled Dansk for an extra attacker with 2:36 to go, and Charlotte scored less than 10 seconds later on Roy’s shot.
3 who mattered
Nicolas Roy, Charlotte: He scored the first and third goals of the final period.
Aleksi Saarela, Charlotte: Saarela’s strong wrist shot sailed into the Chicago goal with 7:08 remaining in the third period and gave the Checkers their winning goal.
Dustin Tokarski, Charlotte: Touched for three early goals, Tokarski, Charlotte’s backup goaltender, shut down the Wolves in the final period and improved to 12-0 this season with the Checkers.
▪ Charlotte goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic’s 38 saves in Game 3 was a career-high total for him in a regulation (non-overtime) game.
▪ The Wolves have a history of comebacks. They’ve rallied twice in the playoffs from 2-1 game deficits — against Grand Rapids in the opening round and San Diego in the Western Conference finals — to win series. And the last two times they lost back-to-back games, they followed with three-game and four-game winning streaks.
▪ Checkers head coach Mike Vellucci has said he has no reservations about going with Tokarski on the second night of back-to-back games. “He’s a veteran leader, and everyone plays well in front of him,” Vellucci said after the Game 2 win Sunday in Charlotte. “Besides, if you look at the analytics, they’ll tell you that the percentages favor going with the other guy in back-to-backs.”
Game 5 is set for 8 p.m. Saturday at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont. The game will be carried live by the NHL Network and by AHL TV.
AHL Calder Cup Finals
Game 1: Wolves 4, Checkers 3 (OT)
Game 2: Checkers 5, Wolves 3
Game 3: Checkers 4, Wolves 1
Game 4: Checkers 5, Wolves 3
Saturday, June 8, 8 p.m.: at Chicago
Thursday, June 13, 7 p.m.: at Charlotte*
Friday, June 14, 7 p.m.: at Charlotte*