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Charlotte Checkers roll out new offensive weapon for playoffs push

Finland's Aleksi Saarela, left, Kasperi Kapanen, and Joni Tuulola, right, celebrate winning the 2016 IIHF World Junior Ice Hockey Championship final match between Finland and Russia in Helsinki, Finland. Saarela, now with the Charlotte Checkers, scored four goals with two assists in the last four games. .
Finland's Aleksi Saarela, left, Kasperi Kapanen, and Joni Tuulola, right, celebrate winning the 2016 IIHF World Junior Ice Hockey Championship final match between Finland and Russia in Helsinki, Finland. Saarela, now with the Charlotte Checkers, scored four goals with two assists in the last four games. . AP

With the Charlotte Checkers attempting to make the American Hockey League playoffs for the first time since 2013, the emergence of a new offensive weapon might help their push.

Last Monday, the Carolinas Hurricanes, the Checkers’ parent club, assigned center Aleksi Saarela to Charlotte. Saarela was selected by the New York Rangers in the third round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft and acquired by the Hurricanes in last year’s trade involving Eric Staal.

Saarela recently finished his third season in SM-Liiga, Finland’s top professional league, making this past week’s games against the Cleveland Monsters, Grand Rapids Griffins and Chicago Wolves his first in North America.

In his first four games with the Checkers, Saarela has appeared to make a seamless transition to his new surroundings, tallying four goals and two assists as Charlotte went 2-2.

Tuesday: After finishing regulation tied at 2, former Checker Zac Dalpe scored less than three minutes into overtime to give the Monsters a 3-2 win. All three of Cleveland’s goals came on power plays, matching the most allowed by Charlotte this season.

Thursday: Neither team scored until Connor Brickley handed the Checkers a 1-0 lead about a minute into the second period. That marked the first of three unanswered goals by Charlotte, which cruised to a 4-1 victory.

Friday: The Checkers held a 1-0 lead entering the third period, when Saarela scored a pair of goals within the first seven minutes. Grand Rapids finally scored in the final minute, but that was the lone blemish for goalkeeper Daniel Altshuller — who blocked 30 of 31 shots in Charlotte’s 3-1 win.

Sunday: After entering the third period trailing 2-1, the Checkers surrendered two goals within the first seven minutes of the frame. Charlotte mounted a comeback, tallying a pair of power-play goals to cut Chicago’s lead to 4-3. However, an empty-net score by the Wolves with about a minute left resulted in a 5-3 loss.

What’s next: The Checkers play their final home games of the regular season this week, starting with a pair of 7 p.m. games against the San Antonio Rampage on Tuesday and Wednesday. Charlotte then hosts the Texas Stars at 6 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday.

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