Hockey - INACTIVE

Charlotte Checkers come home, stout defense returns in AHL playoffs

Alex Nedeljkovic (35), shown with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2017, made 20 saves for the second playoff shutout of his career in the Charlotte Checkers’ 3-0 win over the Providence Bruins in Game 3 of the AHL playoffs.
Alex Nedeljkovic (35), shown with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2017, made 20 saves for the second playoff shutout of his career in the Charlotte Checkers’ 3-0 win over the Providence Bruins in Game 3 of the AHL playoffs. AP file photo

The first two games of the Charlotte Checkers’ opening-round Calder Cup playoff series against Providence were a bit … well, strange.

The Checkers’ 3-0 victory over the Bruins on Wednesday night was a bit more like Charlotte hockey, according to one of the Game 3 standouts.

“Those first two games, they scored in waves, and it seemed like when they got one, they were getting two,” Charlotte goalkeeper Alex Nedeljkovic said. “To put a zero up on the board felt really good.”

Charlotte, up 2-1 in the best-of-5 series, can close out the Bruins in Game 4, set for 7 p.m. Friday at Bojangles Coliseum. If a fifth game is needed, it will be at 6 p.m. Saturday in Charlotte.

The Checkers, the American Hockey League’s best team during the regular season, and Providence are among the league’s top defensive clubs – but you couldn’t have proved that from the series’ first two games.

Charlotte took the opener 5-4, in a game that featured a five-goal first period. Providence swarmed the Checkers net throughout much of Game 2 and won 4-2.

Wednesday night’s contest was tightly-played, with Nedeljkovic making 20 saves for the second playoff shutout of his career.

Andrew Poturalski and Morgan Geekie gave the Checkers a 2-0 lead in the first period, and the rest of the game was a defensive struggle. Poturalski’s second goal of the game, early in the third period, completed the scoring.

“I thought our D played really well,” Charlotte coach Mike Vellucci said.

The Checkers were minus three regular defensemen – one due to injury and two because of suspensions. It meant more ice time for backliners Derek Sheppard and Eric Williams, neither of whom had ever played in a professional postseason game.

“Shep and Willy getting thrown in there without playing a playoff game yet? I thought they were really good and moved the puck well,” Vellucci said.

Nedeljkovic said he expects another closely-contested game Friday.

“We fought hard, and they didn’t make it easy,” he said. “It’s going to be a grind again on Friday night.”

Poturalski said the absence of the two suspended defensemen – Bobby Sanguinetti and Trevor Carrick – was “tough.” But he added, “Those guys came in and filled their spots and stepped up huge.

“We’ve been a deep team all year, and whenever someone comes in and steps up, that’s definitely big for us.”

Worth mentioning

Attendance on Wednesday was 5,191, and the Checkers said the crowd was a plus. “You could tell the crowd was into it, and when they’re into it, you just want to play that much harder,” Nedeljkovic said.

The Checkers were 5-for-5 on the penalty kill. The Bruins behaved themselves, giving Charlotte only one power play. The Checkers didn’t score.

Poturalski hounded the Bruins’ defense all night. He had five shots, and Vellucci said he “hit two or three crossbars after that.”

Sanguinetti will be available Friday night, having completed his one-game suspension. Carrick has two more games to serve.

The Bruins perhaps should have quit after two periods, trailing 2-0. Charlotte is 40-0 this season when leading after two periods.

Steve Lyttle on Twitter: @slyttle

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