Calder Cup Final: Checkers in the Driver’s Seat

The Charlotte Checkers and Chicago Wolves split the first two games of the Calder Cup Final last weekend in North Carolina. The final two teams left standing in the American Hockey League headed back to Chicago for three straight games starting on Wednesday night.

Nedeljkovic Shines in Game 3

Although they didn’t know it when they took the ice, the odds were stacked against the Wolves when they returned home. Not only were they without veteran forward Curtis McKenzie, who was suspended for his actions at the end of Game 2, but they had to deal with a goaltender who was on the top of his game.

Alex Nedeljkovic won the 2019 Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award for being the AHL’s top goaltender during the regular season. He showed everyone at the Allstate Arena exactly why he won the award after sitting out Game 2.

Nedeljkovic’s biggest moment of his 38-save performance came late in the first period. The Checkers were up 1-0 thanks to Julien Gauthier’s early goal and Brooks Macek thought he was about to tie the game. Then, this happened:

“It was a nice stretching save by him,” Macek said after the game. “I feel like I got pretty good wood on it. I got the puck up off the ice and elevated it, but obviously not high enough. I have to give him credit, it was a really nice save. Obviously, that could have been a turning point in the game.”

The Checkers’ special teams took over in the second period to build a 3-0 lead. Jake Bean’s long-range shot on the power play doubled the lead early in the frame. Nine and a half minutes later, Patrick Brown took advantage of a Zac Leslie turnover to score Charlotte’s sixth shorthanded goal of the postseason.

NHL Point system 2017
Patrick Brown has been a huge part of the Checkers’ penalty kill success this season. (Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports)

“I don’t know if we’re getting in their heads,” Brown said of the shorthanded goals against the Wolves in the series. “I just know we want to out-work them. We want them to know that whenever they get a power play it’s not going to be easy.”

Macek eventually spoiled Nedeljkovic’s shutout bid with just over five minutes left in the game by getting to the front of the net and putting the rebound off Zach Whitecloud’s shot into the net.

“We have to execute better, but he is a good goaltender,” Wolves’ head coach Rocky Thompson said of Nedeljkovic. “He won goalie of the year for a reason and I thought he was locked in early. You could see it; he was making some very difficult saves look easy. What we’ve got to do is actually get in the way more. Better traffic and make it more difficult for him to track those things. We got away from that as the game progressed out of the first period.”

Alex Nedeljkovic Hurricanes
Alex Nedeljkovic was a tough nut to crack in Game 3. (Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

Martin Necas added an empty-net goal to cap off the scoring moments later; his second goal of the Calder Cup Final.

McKenzie Left A Huge Void in Wolves Lineup

There was no doubt that the Wolves missed everything McKenzie brings to the lineup on Wednesday.

“Whenever a player like that is out of your lineup, without a doubt, he is going to be missed,” said Thompson. “He is one of our leaders and plays hard. It’s a playoff style that he plays every night. He’s hard to play against so that was missed, for sure.”

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McKenzie plays many different roles for the Wolves and is a major reason why they are in the Calder Cup Final. Not only does he lead the team in playoff goals and points, but he also plays big minutes on both the power play and penalty while providing veteran leadership on and off the ice.

“He’s a huge part of our team,” Macek explained. “He’s one of our leaders and has been to the final before. There is nobody in the room that wants it more than him so, for him to sit out, I’m sure it was frustrating.”

Curtis McKenzie, Chicago Wolves
Curtis McKenzie was surely missed by the Wolves on Wednesday. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Checkers’ head coach Mike Vellucci was asked if needed to address his team about the incident at the end Game 2 that led to McKenzie’s one-game suspension.

“There’s no need,” he said. “It’s playoffs. It’s the finals. There’s no need to address that. We play hard, they play hard and it’s the finals.”

Checkers Mount Comeback to Take Stranglehold

The Wolves had not lost three straight games since a span between Dec. 31 and Jan. 4, but that changed when the gave up a two-goal, second-period lead in a disappointing 5-3 loss in Game 4.

Vellucci decided to start Dustin Tokarski as he has done in the second half of back-to-back games throughout the postseason, including once already in this series.

“He’s 12-0 for us,” Vellucci said about his decision to start Tokarski. “He’s another one of those great guys and has been an unbelievable leader. Did I think about going with Alex? Yeah, Alex played really well. But it doesn’t matter, it’s back-to-back games. The number speak for themselves.”

He had a rough start to his night when defenseman Nic Hague deked the puck around him to put the Wolves up 1-0 just 45 seconds into the game.

Nic Hague, Chicago Wolves
Nic Hague got the Wolves on the board early in Game 4. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Jesper Sellgren tied the game, less than five minutes later, with a long-range shot from just inside the blue line. Leslie became the third blueliner to score in the period, at 16:29, when his shot from the left point found its way through a double-screen for his second goal of the series.

Macek scored for the second straight game by pouncing on the rebound off a Dylan Coghlan shot to give the Wolves their first two-goal lead of the series. However, it was not meant to be.

Necas cashed in on a power play with just a minute to go in the middle frame. Nicolas Roy tied the game in the opening shift of the third period by knocking home a great feed from Julien Gauthier.

“It’s the timing of both of them,” said Thompson. “Coming out in that first shift and giving up another goal right away was tough. It could have sunk us, but we actually took control back of the game. We made a couple of little lapses here and there.”

Aleksi Saarela scored the eventual game-winning goal with just over seven minutes remaining in the game. Leslie backed off a bit as he entered the zone and he used the space to beat Oscar Dansk high to the blocker side.

“He’s dangerous from all over the ice, no matter where he shoots from, “Vellucci said of Saarela’s game. “He can score from anywhere. He shot is heavy and quick. It catches you by surprise.”

Leslie did own up to his error on the ice after the tough loss.

“At the end of the day, I can’t let the shot get off,” he said. “It’s my job as a defenseman to get in the way and not let it get through. You have to respect his skill level, but I think to think my skill level defending is as good as theirs’s scoring. A play like that, I should be able to handle it.”

Roy added an empty-net goal to seal the deal and give the Checkers a 3-1 series lead. They will get their first of three chances to win the first Calder Cup in franchise history Saturday night in Chicago.