CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The 2019 Calder Cup Final got underway in Charlotte, North Carolina last night, with the Charlotte Checkers and Chicago Wolves needing extra time to find a winner in a tightly-contested game one.
Charlotte was more than ready for its first opportunity to host a game on the AHL’s biggest stage, setting a team-record in attendance for the second straight game. The final total stated a count of 8,465 people on Saturday, 72 more fans than the previous best set merely a week ago in game six of the East Final against Toronto. Bojangles’ Coliseum was extremely loud, as the Checker faithful turned out in force to support their squad. The energy was off the charts, and the home-standing Checkers were able to feed off of it and start the game exactly as they drew it up.
The Checkers came into the game on a mission, and took the play to the Wolves in a big way early on. Charlotte attacked immediately, and Chicago was forced to take a penalty after just 48 seconds had elapsed. The Checkers nearly capitalized on a play in tight, sending a cheer through the crowd as the puck appeared to have found the back of the net. It turns out the backhand effort from Nicolas Roy did find the back of the net, just on the outside. Charlotte stuck with the play, however, and seconds later really did find the inside of the cage to give the home side an early lead.
Charlotte took advantage of the extra man, as Roy was able to win the battle and get the puck off the net before the whistle was forced to be blown, then immediately slid it over to Aleksi Saarela in the far corner. Saarela angled a pass off the boards to Trevor Carrick at the point, who released a quick shot towards goal that appeared to deflect off the stick of a Chicago defender on the way in, eluding Oscar Dansk before the Chicago netminder could react. Carrick’s second of the playoffs made it 1-0 Checkers just 2:19 into the contest.
It didn’t take long for the visitors to answer, though, as just 3:35 later Chicago pulled even on a shot through traffic of its own (you’ll notice a theme building here). Keegan Kolesar played the puck to Griffin Reinhart at the near point, who wasted little time throwing the puck on goal. Stefan Matteau, who was firmly planted just outside the crease, was able to take away the vision of Alex Nedeljkovic while simultaneously sending a redirection past the Charlotte keeper and in. It was the first of two sizable goals on the night for Matteau, and made it a 1-1 game with 14:06 still to go in opening frame.
The score remained the same for almost ten minutes, but with just over four minutes to play in period one the Checkers regained the lead. It all started with an excellent shift by the line of Clark Bishop, Nick Schilkey, and Zach Nastasiuk, as they kept the Wolves pinned in their own end for the full shift. Chicago got it out eventually, but was only to get one player changed before Nastasiuk sent the puck back into the Chicago zone. The Checkers were then able to get fresh bodies on against tired defenders, leading immediately to a goal.
Martin Necas came flying off the bench and shooting into the zone at full speed, taking a pass as he entered and smoothly spinning around a charging d-man, then slamming on the breaks and sending a crisp saucer pass through the slot and onto the tape of Haydn Fleury at the near point. Fleury sent a d-to-d pass to Roland McKeown, who’s shot was tipped home by the aforementioned Necas to make it 2-1 with 4:13 remaining in the first. It was a gorgeous display of skill, vision, and situational awareness by Necas, and honestly seemed deserving of both a goal and a helper for #88.
The game looked to be headed to the first intermission with the Checkers up just one, but with 57 seconds left on the clock the league’s best scorer doubled the advantage. Andrew Poturalski took a pass from Josiah Didier in their own end, before making a man miss and charging into the neutral zone at full speed. Poturalski saw four defenders blocking the way to the goal, so dropped a pass to Morgan Geekie along the near boards just outside the zone. Poturalski suddenly split the defenders and raced towards a return pass that had been sent into the danger area by Geekie, gathering the puck while keeping his pace and firing a shot over the shoulder of Dansk before the Wolves knew what had hit them. The textbook give-and-go by Poturalski and Geekie made it 3-1 Charlotte after 20.
You could be forgiven for thinking Chicago was just up against a buzzsaw in game one, as everything favored the home squad after one. The Checkers were flying and had made the Wolves pay both through sustained pressure and quick-hit strikes. The Coliseum had never been louder. Momentum was securely on the side of the brighter shade of red, not to mention how good Charlotte is with a lead. The Checkers came in 8-0 when scoring first and 6-0 when ahead after one period in the postseason. That’s all well and good, but you still have to continue playing your game for a full 60 minutes. Because there was one group who certainly didn’t think it was over, the Chicago Wolves.
The never-say-die Wolves had rallied from series deficits in each of the first three rounds, so a two-goal deficit with 40 minutes still to play was nothing they couldn’t handle.
Chicago slowly began to take over the middle stanza, and midway through broke through to get back within a single goal. The Wolves got the puck in deep, then Curtis McKenzie won battle along the boards in the near corner and knocked the disc to Daniel Carr, who then sent a bank pass up to Zac Leslie at the near point. Leslie faked a shot, then calmly stepped to the side to allow the diving defender to slide by before sending a wrist shot that beat a screened Nedeljkovic to make it 3-2 with 8:33 remaining in period two.
The game seemed destined to go to the third with Chicago still in search of the equalizing effort, but with just six seconds left in the second the script was rewritten. As was the clear theme for both teams in game one, the tying goal once again was a shot through bodies and from a distance that the goalie never had a chance to even see much less stop. The goal came after a flurry of chances, ending when a shot from Reinhart was deflected wide but wrapped around the boards to be held in by T.J. Tynan. Tynan sent a pass to the opposite point, where Zach Whitecloud was ready and waiting to blast a one-timer that missed the bodies in front and was caught by the mesh receptacle to send the game to the third level at three and three.
Charlotte fought hard to regain the initiative in the third, outshooting Chicago 17-7 in the final frame of regulation. The Checkers kept the Wolves pinned deep for large chunks of the period, with the crowd on the edge of their seats in anticipation of the go-ahead and likely winning goal. Despite the advance, however, Dansk and the Wolves were able to hold the line and keep the puck out of their net to extend the game beyond the hour mark.
The Wolves regrouped during the intermission, and always looked the side on in the verge of scoring the winner in overtime. First, Chicago was gifted a power play when Fleury took an undisciplined cross checking minor behind his own net. The Checkers were able to kill off the minor, but momentum was now squarely with the guests. Charlotte iced the puck 5:23 into bonus hockey, giving Chicago an offensive-zone draw and bringing about the conclusion of game one.
The Checkers won the faceoff, but a high clearing attempt along the far boards was held in by Nic Hague as he reached up to catch the puck and drop it to himself before playing down to the half-boards to Matteau. Matteau walked in and released a shot from the top of the dot that snuck through Nedeljkovic and slipped to the back of the net to send the Chicago players streaming into the corner to celebrate as Charlotte and its record crowd exited stage right.
With the victory, Chicago draws first blood in what is expected to be a lengthy and tightly-contested final. For Charlotte, this is nothing new. They also dropped a hard-fought contest to Toronto to open the East Final at home before winning four of the next five to move on. The time to respond is now, however, as the Checkers absolutely cannot afford to go to northwestern Illinois in a 2-0 hole. It is a quick turnaround, with faceoff for game two coming later today at 6:00 p.m. ET/5:00 p.m. CT inside Bojangles’ Coliseum.
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