After having to watch the Checkers play their last 10 games on the road, 8,002 fans packed Time Warner Cable Arena on Saturday for Charlotte’s showdown with the Lake Erie Monsters.
For those that hadn’t been able to see the team since its last home game on Feb. 18, the Checkers – who netted three goals in the third period to break the game open – made sure it was worth the wait by securing their seventh win in their last eight games with a 5-2 victory over the Monsters.
Brett Sutter (1g, 1a), Aaron Palushaj (1g, 1), Zach Boychuk (2a), Chris Terry (1g, 1a), and Michal Jordan (2a) all recorded multiple-points in the win, as the Checkers (31-27-3) moved to within three points of idle Milwaukee for the Western Conference’s final playoff spot with 15 games still to play.
“It was key to come home and start with that same winning feeling that we had on the road,” said Terry following the game. “It’s a good start to the home stand and hopefully we can keep it going.”
“I guess we were saving (our wins) for when it matters,” said Sutter. “Things are getting interesting. Every game, every point is so big for us. We're trying not to watch the scoreboard, focus on ourselves, and take advantage of these home games.”
John Muse, who entered the game fresh off a career-high 43-save performance in a 3-1 win over Texas on Wednesday, was again solid in net, turning away 35 of 37 shots.
The win brought the Checkers’ record at home to .500 (15-15-1) for the first time this season after the club opened up the year 0-6-0 in their home arena.
“It doesn’t matter where we play, we need to win games,” said Checkers coach Jeff Daniels, whose team went 6-3-1 during its stretch of 10 straight away games. “We’re not in a situation to let games slip by. That was why it was great to come out of that road trip over .500, but I told the guys that means nothing if we don’t take care of things at home.”
Just before the five-minute mark of the first period, Sean Dolan put the Checkers up 1-0 on a play that began with him nearly giving the puck away in his own zone.
After the puck deflected off the stick of a Monsters’ defenseman, Palushaj was able to control it and quickly feed Boychuk, who was streaking up the middle of the ice, with Dolan on his left.
At the last moment, Boychuk slid the puck back to Dolan, for his fifth goal of the season.
Thanks to two Monsters’ penalties within 40 seconds of each other, the Checkers were able to take a 2-0 lead with 3:52 to play in the first period when Terry connected on his 22nd goal of the season with Charlotte playing 5-on-3.
A trend of flat second periods continued for the Checkers, who entered Saturday’s game having been outshot 686-650 in the second frame of games, despite carrying a positive shot differential in the first and third periods this season.
Three minutes in, the Monsters – who outshot Charlotte 12-9 in the period – cut the Checkers’ lead to 2-1 after Trevor Cheek crashed the net and forced home a puck that Muse thought he had frozen under his left pad.
A little over seven minutes later, Lake Erie defenseman Setfan Elliott’s 10th goal of the season tied the game at 2-2.
However, Charlotte came out skating in the third period and regained it’s two-goal edge just 2:34 into the period on goals by Danny Biega (set up by Boychuk) and Sutter.
With a goal and an assist on Saturday, Sutter moved two points ahead of Zac Dalpe (132) for sole possession of third place on the Checkers’ all-time points list.
"I didn’t even know that until you said it to me just now to be honest," said Sutter of passing Dalpe. "It’s pretty cool. I’ve been in Charlotte for a long time and I hope there’s more (points) coming."
Palushaj added the final bit of insurance with the Checkers on the power play midway through the third, sending a chip shot up and over Lake Erie goaltender Calvin Pickard (21 saves).
"It’s really nice to be home," said Sutter. "It’s always good to sleep in your own bed, get comfortable again, get out of the hotels. But at the same time, it was a little bit of an adjustment after spending almost a month away from this rink. It's going to be nice once we get into the swing of things here."
The Checkers and Monsters will finish up their two-game set on Sunday afternoon at 1:30. Charlotte now leads the season-series two games to one.