Scott Fowler

Checkers’ Game 2 win in AHL finals shows why hockey in June is fun in Charlotte

Charlotte Checkers even series with 5-3 win over the Wolves

The Charlotte Checkers even the series against the Chicago Wolves on Sunday, June 2, 2019 with a 5-3 win. The victory was marred by the antics of a Chicago Wolves player hitting a defenseless Checkers player in the final moments of play too jeers.
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The Charlotte Checkers even the series against the Chicago Wolves on Sunday, June 2, 2019 with a 5-3 win. The victory was marred by the antics of a Chicago Wolves player hitting a defenseless Checkers player in the final moments of play too jeers.

As has become their custom this season, the Charlotte Checkers gave their home fans quite a show Sunday night. They scored. They fought. And ultimately they won, 5-3 over Chicago, knotting the teams’ best-of-7 AHL Calder Cup Finals at one game apiece.

Before a near-sellout crowd of 8,378 at Bojangles’ Coliseum, the Checkers showed why hockey is so much fun right now in Charlotte. After losing Game 1 of the series Saturday night in a come-from-ahead loss, the Checkers never trailed Sunday before a rowdy home crowd.

“I couldn’t be more proud of Charlotte and our fans,” Checkers coach Mike Vellucci said afterward.

Charlotte went into the third period leading 4-3, and this season the Checkers have been amazing closers. They were 46-0 entering Sunday night’s game when leading after the first two periods this season. They made it 47-0 with this one, adding an empty-net goal in the final minute.

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That final minute also included a fight that started with less than 10 seconds left and ended with Chicago’s Curtis McKenzie repeatedly hitting the Checkers’ Steven Lorentz after Lorentz had fallen to the ice.

“I used to have respect for a player who has played 100 games in the NHL,” Vellucci said angrily. He was speaking of McKenzie, who is the Wolves’ leading scorer in the AHL playoffs. “But he hit a defenseless player four or five times when he was on the ice. There’s a code in hockey. He should know it…. That was really bush league.”

Lorentz ended up skating off the ice, holding his forehead, but he was crumpled on it for several minutes after the incident and before the game’s final 0.8 seconds ticked off the clock. It was a weird ending to an entertaining game.

Game 2 - jump.JPG
Charlotte Checkers goalie Dustin Tokarski, left and the Chicago Wolves’ Griffin Reinhart become entangled in the goal area during second-period action on Sunday. The Checkers won, 5-3, to tie the series at one game apiece. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

As for the game itself, the Checkers scored two goals just 14 seconds apart in the second period to take a 3-1 lead. Chicago quickly fought back to tie the score at 3-all — which made Checkers fans uneasy because the team had also blown a 3-1 lead in Game 1 on Saturday. But then Charlotte pulled back ahead again after a goal late in the second period from Tomas Jurco.

The Checkers haven’t lost back-to-back games since early February, and they seemed to really want this one. And they had to have it, because the series’ next three games are in Rosemont, just outside Chicago.

Of his players, Vellucci said: “It’s June. It’s 95 degrees in Charlotte. They want to be in the locker room. They don’t want to be on the golf course.”

Hockey in June doesn’t come around too often in Charlotte and the Checkers are trying to take full advantage of their moment. The longest line in the pregame was at the Checkers’ merchandise stand, where at one point close to 100 fans waited in line for their turn to buy anything with a Checkers logo on it. Many items were 20 percent off.

Ponder that for a moment – how often is a team in the finals of any event discounting its merchandise during those very finals? If you wanted a red Charlotte Checkers hockey jersey for $115, though, you better wear a 3XL – that’s all they had left.

There was team mascot Chubby. There was some clever organ music. And there were hundreds of cowbells, of course, as well as the iconic “Saturday Night Live” sketch on the arena scoreboard with Christopher Walken proclaiming: “I got a fever! And the only prescription is more cowbell!”

But none of that would have felt that great to the fans if the Checkers hadn’t won.

Falling into an 0-2 hole in almost any best-of-7 series, no matter the sport, is often a prelude to checkmate. Instead, the Checkers head to Chicago very much alive after a spectacular Sunday.

AHL Calder Cup Finals

Chicago Wolves vs. Charlotte Checkers

Game 1: Wolves 4, Checkers 3 (OT)

Game 2: Checkers 5, Wolves 3

June 5, 8 p.m.: at Chicago

June 6, 8 p.m.: at Chicago

June 8, 8 p.m.: at Chicago

June 13, 7 p.m.: at Charlotte*

June 14, 7 p.m.: at Charlotte*

*if necessary; games will air live on NHL Network except Game 1 (2 p.m. Sunday) and Game 4 (1 p.m. Friday). All games stream live on AHLTV.

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