The Charlotte Checkers have played their best hockey of the season this month. They’ve gone stick-to-stick with some of the best teams in the Western Conference.
Yet, on Sunday, the Checkers played uninspired, disjointed and sloppy hockey against a squad that was just four points ahead of them in the conference standings.
Lake Erie took full advantage.
The 5-1 loss to the Monsters in front of 7,077 at Time Warner Cable Arena leaves the Checkers all but mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. Wins by Hamilton (32-25-11-0) and Milwaukee (32-25-6-5) could leave Charlotte out for the second year in a row as early as Thursday.
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“We just didn’t have it,” Checkers coach Jeff Daniels said. “The wheels came off the bus today. We just weren’t sharp, it snowballed from there and we just couldn’t recover.”
The Checkers (28-35-5-1), who fell 3-2 to the Monsters (30-26-6-4) Friday, gave Sunday’s rematch away early.
Aided by a power-play goal, a short-handed strike and some sloppy work in front of the net by Charlotte, the Monsters jumped to a 3-0 lead after the first period.
Andrew Agozzino scored four minutes in when he overpowered Checkers defenseman Beau Schmitz in front of the net for his first of three goals.
An already-ugly first period got worse when Lake Erie’s Kenny Ryan stripped Justin Shugg of the puck in the neutral zone and beat Drew MacIntyre for a short-handed goal with 33 seconds to play in the period.
“You hate to give up a goal in the last minute like that,” Checkers defenseman Dennis Robertson said. “We had some momentum … and then to give one up in the last minute kills.”
The Checkers chased the Monsters for the rest of the game.
Agozzino netted Lake Erie’s second short-handed goal six minutes into the second period and sent a visibly frustrated MacIntyre (10 saves on 15 shots) to the showers early after he gave up his 22nd goal of the season two minutes later. John Muse (16 saves) proved a worthy tourniquet in relief of MacIntyre.
MacIntyre was “frustrated, and he should be,” Daniels said. “Three breakaways and some major breakdowns. He was frustrated like the rest of the guys.”
Dennis Robertson saved Charlotte the embarrassment of a shutout with his third goal of the season during the third period. But the final 20 minutes Sunday were more of a formality than anything else.
Despite dropping two in a row, the Checkers have more wins in March (6-5-0) than in any other month this season. With seven regular-season games remaining, Daniels hopes his team can forget Sunday and close out the season on a positive note.
Notes: Sunday marked MacIntyre’s 400th American Hockey League start. He is tied for ninth all-time in league wins. … The Checkers’ two short-handed goals allowed tied their total from the previous 68 games.
1st Period-1, Lake Erie, Agozzino 20 (Street, Petryk), 4:16. 2, Lake Erie, Elliott 18 (Agozzino, Youds), 8:15 (PP). 3, Lake Erie, Ryan 10 19:39 (SH). Penalties-Petryk Le (fighting), 7:37; Cornell Cha (instigating, fighting, misconduct - instigating), 7:37; Agozzino Le (holding), 10:07; Bourke Le (tripping), 13:35; Woods Cha (hooking), 14:15; Holmstrom Cha (boarding), 15:21; Robertson Cha (slashing), 16:04; Cheek Le (roughing, fighting), 19:19; Woods Cha (fighting), 19:19.
2nd Period-4, Lake Erie, Agozzino 21 6:10 (SH). 5, Lake Erie, Agozzino 22 (Vincour, Corbett), 8:27. Penalties-Henley Le (cross-checking), 4:51.
3rd Period-6, Charlotte, Robertson 3 (Holmstrom, Shugg), 3:23. Penalties-Sutter Cha (slashing), 10:16.
Shots on Goal-Lake Erie 13-7-11-31. Charlotte 7-17-11-35. Goalies-Lake Erie, Pickard 18-14-3 (35 shots-34 saves). Charlotte, MacIntyre 19-24-1 (15-10); Muse (16-16). A-7,077.