CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Charlotte Checkers went into Wednesday’s night game looking to keep their winning streak alive that they had in 2022. Going into the contest against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, the streak was at four games. Unfortunately for the Checkers, the winning streak would be snapped at four games after losing 5-3 to the Penguins to start off 2023.
The start of the game for the Checkers was less than ideal. About 1:13 into the contest, the Penguins would strike first on a Sam Houde goal. Houde got a great feed going into the Checkers’ zone on a rush from Alex Nylander of which he snapped the puck short side on goaltender Alex Lyon. The goal would give the Penguins an early lead, and it was Houde’s sixth goal of the season. Nylander was credited with the primary assist, his 13th of the year. Not the start the Checkers wanted going into their first game of 2023.
Not long after, there was a scare that could have led to a disastrous situation for the Checkers. While trying to help his team control the puck, Lyon skated behind the net to retrieve the puck. What ensued was a fire drill in which Lyon lost the puck to the Penguin’s forecheckers. The Penguins tried to bounce the puck in the net off of a Checkers player. Luckily for the Checkers, the crisis was averted as the puck was blocked away, and the score remained 1-0 for the Penguins.
There were a couple of hooking penalties in between the Penguins’ goal and the tying goal that was much needed for the Checkers in the first period. The Checkers were in the middle of their first penalty kill of the period when Connor Bunnaman skated into the offensive zone with the puck. He managed to skate by a Penguins defender who tried to block the slot from Bunnaman. Although, that was moot as Bunnaman skated around the defender and snapped the puck farside on Penguins’ goaltender Taylor Gauthier. The goal was the Checkers’ sixth shorthanded goal of the season and Bunnaman’s fifth of the year. It would tie the game up 1-1 at the 16:31 mark of the period.
It wouldn’t be the final goal of the period as at the 19:19 mark of the period, Henry Bowlby would give the Checkers their first lead of the game. He managed to get a breakaway into the Penguins’ zone after a great breakout pass from defenseman Johnny Ludvig to get a Grade-A chance on the net. Bowlby did a simple backhand-to-forehand stick handle and slip the puck five-hole on Gauthier to make it 2-1 Checkers right before the first intermission. The goal was Bowlby’s fourth of the season and Ludvig’s fourth assist as well.
The Checkers carried a one-goal lead going into the second period. The last five minutes of the first period definitely gave the team a boost of confidence against a high-scoring Penguins team. Although the lead wouldn’t last in the period as at the 12:33 mark of the second period, Valtteri Puustinen would tie the game up for the Penguins. Puustinen was one of the Penguins’ players featured in the latest preview where the Checkers needed to keep the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s leading scorer at bay. The Penguins’ offense set up Puustinen perfectly for his 13th goal of the season as they made three great passes to set him up for his goal. He received the puck in the right faceoff circle from Drake Caggiula and just snapped the puck top shelf farside on Lyon to tie the game 2-2. It seemed that Lyon could have been screened as well, which at that point, there is nothing Lyon could do there.
At the 14:20 mark of the period, Checkers’ Grigori Denisenko and Penguins’ Sean Josling would drop the gloves after Denisenko took exception to a Nylander hit in the neutral zone. Josling got involved when Denisenko cross-checked Nylander near his mouth, which started the fight between the two players. Denisenko was only issued a fighting major, while Josling got slapped with an instigator penalty for his efforts. The instigator penalty was served by Puustinen. Josling was also issued a misconduct penalty, so he had to sit in the box for all of his 17 penalty minutes.
Unfortunately for the Checkers, the Penguins would regain their lead at the 17:01 mark of the period. Sam Houde would once again score for the Penguins for his second goal of the game. From the broadcast, it seemed like the puck was initially shot, or slap-passed, from Lukas Svejkovsky, and it somehow bounced off of Houde’s skate into the net. The goal was just an unfortunate bounce for the Checkers as Houde gets his seventh goal of the season, his second of the game. The Checkers would go into the second intermission down 3-2.
The third period provided some hope for the Checkers, although the Penguins would double their lead first at the 4:43 mark. Nylander would add a goal to his name on the night while on an odd-man rush into the Checkers’ zone. After receiving the puck from Filip Hållander, Nylander would snap the puck past Lyon to make it a 4-2 Penguins lead. The goal was Nylander’s 12th of the season, keeping pace with points leader Puustinen. Furthermore, he extended his points streak to four games. Hallander was credited with his 16th assist on the year as well.
The Checkers would get back to within one at the 9:36 mark after a Santtu Kinnunen powerplay goal. While on the powerplay, Kinnunen would take a pass from Aleksi Heponiemi at the top of the point in the Penguin’s zone. Kinnunen was looking to rip a massive one-timer, but the puck was bouncing too much and caught his stick wrong, breaking the stick in two pieces. Although, the puck would still find its way into the net to make it a 4-3 Penguins lead. The best part was that Kinnunen didn’t see the puck go into the net as he was going to the Checkers’ bench to grab a new stick. The goal was Kinnunen’s third of the season and Heponiemi’s seventh assist of the year.
In the end, the Penguins would ice the game on an empty net goal from Caggiula at the 19:38 mark of the period. After a diving clear by Hallander that went past a couple of Checkers players, Caggiula grabbed the puck and essentially walked the puck into the empty net. The game at that point was over for the Checkers as that was Caggiula’s sixth goal of the season and Hallander’s 17th assist, the second assist of the game. The Checkers’ comeback would fall short and their four-game winning streak would be snapped in the first game of 2023.
Thoughts & What’s Next?
The Charlotte Checkers’ loss snapped their four-game winning streak and will set them up to potentially not get swept by the Penguins on Friday night. The Checkers are now 16-12-2-1 with 35 points on the season and now see them in fourth place in the Atlantic Division. The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins are now 15-9-2-3 with 35 points as well. The Penguins are third in the Atlantic Division with two games in hand on the Checkers, hence why they’re in third because of points percentage.
The Checkers finish their two-game set with the Penguins Friday night at 7:05 p.m. Eastern. After that, they travel to Hershey to face the Bears on Saturday at 7 p.m. EST.
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