Hockey

Saarela’s hat trick leads Checkers to series sweep and into conference finals

Canes, Bruins set for Game 1 in Boston

Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton, who played his first three NHL seasons for the Boston Bruins, talks about the challenge of facing them in the Eastern Conference finals after Canes practice May 8, 2019.
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Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton, who played his first three NHL seasons for the Boston Bruins, talks about the challenge of facing them in the Eastern Conference finals after Canes practice May 8, 2019.

Aleksi Saarela capped a brilliant two-night stretch with a hat trick Wednesday night, leading the Charlotte Checkers to a series-clinching 5-2 victory over the host Hershey Bears.

Saarela’s three goals came one night after he scored twice in Charlotte’s 3-1 Game 3 victory.

The Checkers now advance to the American Hockey League’s Eastern Conference finals, where they’ll meet the defending Calder Cup champion Toronto Marlies in a best-of-7 series. That series will begin May 17 in Charlotte.

As was the case Tuesday night, the Checkers’ penalty kill was an important part of their victory. Charlotte successfully killed off four penalties in the game’s opening 22 minutes.

Meanwhile, the Checkers twice scored on the power play.

Charlotte killed off two penalties in the first period, including an 18-second stretch when the Checkers were two skaters short. The Checkers then got on the scoreboard, when Saarela redirected a pass from Trevor Carrick on the right side of the Hershey goal with 5:35 left in the period.

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Charlotte made the score 2-0 just 57 seconds into the second period, when Julien Gauthier scored on the power play. Like the first goal, Gauthier was left unattended on the right side of the Hershey net and flicked a pass from Martin Necas past Bears’ goalkeeper Ilya Samsonov.

Saarela made the score 3-0 with 5:38 left in the second period, when he skated behind the Hershey defense and beat Samsonov with a left-handed wrist shot from about 15 feet.

The Checkers expanded the lead to 4-0 on a Tomas Jurco goal about three minutes into the third period. The Bears, however, did not give up. They outshot Charlotte 8-4 in the final period and scored twice, cutting the Checkers’ lead to 4-2 with 5:16 remaining.

But when the Bears pulled Samsonov for an extra skater with 2:24 left, Saarela got the puck near center ice and flicked it into the Hershey goal for the hat trick.

Three who mattered

Aleksi Saarela (Charlotte): His three-goal outburst came one night after he scored twice.

Julien Gauthier (Charlotte): The right-winger had a goal and an assist.

Bobby Sanguinetti (Charlotte): The veteran defenseman was part of a Checkers’ defense that shut down the Bears for much of the series. And he had two assists Wednesday night.

Worth mentioning

Jurco was back in the lineup after missing two games due to injury. Forward Clark Bishop, injured in Game 2, was out again Wednesday.

The Checkers’ next opponent certainly is no pushover. The Toronto Marlies won the Calder Cup last season and are 7-0 in the playoffs this year.

Charlotte’s ability to kill off penalties was a topic of conversation among both teams after Game 3. “We were missing some forwards, some of our penalty-killers, but other guys stepped up. And we didn’t give them a sniff,” Checkers coach Mike Vellucci said after Tuesday’s game.

The Checkers will have more than a week to rest up, as the next series won’t begin until a week from Friday.

What’s next?

The Eastern Conference finals will open Friday, May 17, with Game 1 in Charlotte at 7 p.m. Game 2 will be at 6 p.m. May 18. The series will move to Toronto for Games 3 (7 p.m. May 21), 4 (7 p.m. May 23) and 5 (7 p.m. May 24). Games 6 and 7 would be in Charlotte around Memorial Day – at 7 p.m. Sunday, May 26 and 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 28.

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