How a change in strategy got the Charlotte Checkers into the Calder Cup finals

Injuries and illness had shrunk the number of available players as the game moved on, Charlotte Checkers’ coach Mike Vellucci said.

The heat – 95 degrees outside Bojangles’ Coliseum and the indoor heat created by a season-best attendance of 8,393 – was causing the ice to get soft, Checkers forward Morgan Geekie said.

So the Checkers changed their strategy a bit. Geekie said Vellucci told them to dump the puck into the Toronto end of the ice “and go crashing in there.”

Nearly two minutes into the second overtime Sunday night, Steven Lorentz fired a long shot toward Toronto goalkeeper Kasimir Kaskisuo . The puck rebounded – right onto the stick of Geekie, who was in front of the net. He flicked it into the goal, the Checkers won 4-3, and Charlotte suddenly will be playing for a league championship.

The Checkers open the best-of-7 Calder Cup finals at home Saturday, playing at 6 p.m. against the West champion, either Chicago or San Diego.

And they’ll have time to recover from Sunday’s battle, which took a toll on both teams.

“It was pretty draining,” Vellucci said afterward.

Toronto Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe called it “grueling.”

The Eastern Conference finals series was a series of twists and turns. Toronto won Game 1 in Charlotte. The Marlies jumped to a big lead in Game 2, but Charlotte rallied for a victory. The Checkers dominated Game 3 in Toronto, but the Marlies recovered with an overtime win in Game 4. Then Charlotte scored two short-handed goals Friday in Game 5, taking the series lead and giving themselves a chance to win the series Sunday and get nearly a week off before the finals.

“None of us wanted to come back and play Tuesday,” Geekie said.

Before the game reached overtime, the Checkers had to weather a storm. Toronto rallied from a 2-0 deficit to take a 3-2 lead. And even when Charlotte tied the score, the

Marlies dominated. They outshot Charlotte 28-11 in the second and third periods.

But Checkers goalkeeper Alex Nedeljkovic and the rest of the defense tightened up, successfully killing off eight of nine Marlies power plays. That set it up for the overtime.

Charlotte controlled play in the first 20-minute extra period and nearly scored several times. It was more of the same in the opening moments of the second overtime.

“Guys were getting tired,” Geekie said. “We just wanted to get that puck in the net.”

Vellucci said his team “had nothing left” at the finish. “Thank God we got that goal,” he said.

3 who mattered

Morgan Geekie, Charlotte: He scored what was arguably the biggest goal in franchise history, ending the game in the second overtime and sending the Checkers to the Calder Cup finals.

Patrick Brown, Charlotte: Brown scored two goals, giving him four for the playoffs.

Calle Rosen, Toronto: A defenseman, Rosen scored on a second-period slap shot and played solid defense throughout the night.

Worth mentioning

Sunday’s crowd set a record for the Checkers at the coliseum. But the record for the franchise, now in its ninth season, was 13,219, set April 11, 2015. The Checkers played at what is now the Spectrum Center until October 2015, when they moved back to the coliseum.

Sunday’s game was the first home playoff overtime contest for the Checkers since last May’s AHL-record, five-overtime loss to Lehigh Valley. That game ended after 1:30 a.m.

The officiating crew was not popular with the crowd. The Checkers were called for nine penalties, to Toronto’s four.

Sunday night’s big crowd gives the Checkers an average home playoff attendance of 6,791 – sixth of 16 teams in AHL playoff attendance. West finalist San Diego is first (8,035), followed by now-eliminated Cleveland (8,000). The Chicago, the other West finalist, is second from the bottom (3,827).

Most coaches and players from both teams agreed that the Checkers’ penalty-kill unit, which scored four short-handed goals and held the Marlies’ AHL-leading power play in check, was a key in the series. “You’ve got to give Charlotte credit,” Marlies center Chris Mueller said. “They penalty kill made the difference.”

What’s next?

The Checkers will host Game 1 of the Calder Cup Finals against the West champion Chicago Wolves at 6 p.m. Saturday at Bojangles’ Coliseum. Game 2 is scheduled for Sunday at 6 p.m. Games 3, 4 and 5 will be Allstate Arena in the Chicago suburb of Rosemont on June 5, 6 and 8. Games 6 and 7 would be at 7 p.m. June 13 and 14 in Charlotte.

They said it

“You dream your whole life, from the age of 6 or 7, of playing in a game like this – a game that could decide a series. This was really special.” – Checkers’ captain Patrick Brown.