While the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues are gaining most of the hockey world’s attention in the Stanley Cup Final, the American Hockey League’s championship series is off to an entertaining start. The Charlotte Checkers and Chicago Wolves were two of the best teams during the regular season and they are heading to the Windy City tied 1-1 in the Calder Cup Final.
Like Father, Like Son in Game 1
The name Matteau and overtime goals have been linked together since Game 7 of the NHL’s 1994 Eastern Conference Final. Back then, Stephane Matteau sent the New York Rangers to the Stanley Cup Final with a goal against the New Jersey Devils. Fast forward some 25 years and Stefan Matteau’s overtime goal on Saturday night gave the Wolves a 1-0 lead in the Calder Cup Final.
Matteau’s game-winner was his second tally of the evening as he scored to tie the game at 1-1, less than six minutes into the game. The goal came just over three minutes after Trevor Carrick gave the Checkers an early lead with a power-play goal.
The Checkers withstood some great pressure by the Wolves during the middle portion of the opening frame and responded with a pair of goals to take a 3-1 lead into the first intermission.
Martin Necas scored by redirecting a shot from the point to give Charlotte a 2-1 lead at 15:47. Andrew Poturalski jumped out of the penalty box and scored his league-leading ninth goal of the playoffs in the final minute of the first period.
“We had a bit of a rough start,” said Wolves head coach Rocky Thompson. “And then we weathered the storm and got into our game and then we started to play good. The game had these ebbs and flows in it. It was a really good hockey game. It certainly could have gone either way and we were fortunate.”
Goaltender Oscar Dansk tightened things up and did not allow a goal for the rest of the evening, giving his team a chance to win. The Wolves battled back to tie the game with a pair of goals by defensemen in the second period.
Zac Leslie scored from the right circle at 11:27 before Zach Whitecloud’s blast from the point tied the game with just six seconds left in the middle frame.
The game headed to overtime after a scoreless third period. Just 5:30 into the extra time, Matteau struck again to complete the big comeback and give the Wolves a 1-0 series lead.
“It was a weird feeling,” Matteau said of his game-winning goal. “I think (the puck) hit the ref or something and we kept it in. It seemed like everybody lost track of it and it fell right in front of me, so I just grabbed it, saw I had space, took a couple of steps and luckily it squeaked by.”
This is a good omen for the Wolves as they have won their last 22 playoff series after winning the first game. However, Checkers head coach Mike Vellucci was confident in his team with a quick turnaround for Game 2.
“We’re in the finals,” he said. “This isn’t the end of the world. We lost one game, and it was in overtime to a very good team. This is the finals of the league, there’s only two teams standing and you’ve got to pick your head up and move on to tomorrow. The crowd was great, they were into it. I thought maybe we were a little nervous at the beginning, but it was awesome. This was a learning experience for these guys. We’re the youngest team in the league, and it’s a great learning experience to learn how to play in a final.”
Checkers Avoid Another Collapse to Take Game 2
Neither team had much time to think about Saturday’s Game 1 as they were back on the ice for Game 2 on Sunday evening. The game nearly followed the script from the series opener as the Checkers coughed up another 3-1 second-period lead, but they recovered to send the series to Chicago tied 1-1.
The Checkers struck first again; this time Nick Schilkey scored the team’s fifth shorthanded goal of the playoffs at the 3:50 mark of the first period. The Wolves had a quick answer, less than a minute later, when Keegan Kolesar cut to the front of the net and beat Game 2 starter, Dustin Tokarski.
Just like in Game 1, the Checkers built their lead early in the second period after Nicolas Roy and Stelio Mattheos lit the lamp just 14 seconds apart.
Gage Quinney stepped up and scored a pair of goals to even it up for the Wolves. He struck for the first time, just over a minute after the Checkers’ third goal, when he batted a pass from Jake Bischoff out of midair and in behind Tokarski.
Just over four minutes later, while on a power play, Quinney snuck behind the defense and used his backhand to even things up. It was the first power-play goal for the Wolves since Game 1 of the Western Conference Final.
Tomas Jurco scored the eventual game-winning goal 18:53 of the second period as his one-timer from the right side barely got through Dansk and trickled over the goal line.
“It was a relief,” Jurco said of his goal. “I’ve had many chances in the last couple of games and I couldn’t score so that one felt really good.”
Poturalski added an empty-net goal late in the third period to cap off the scoring and ice the win. Since the start of the regular season, the Checkers are now 47-0-0-0 when leading after two periods.
“This was probably our weakest game, I felt, from the second period on,” Thompson said after the loss. “I really thought that they controlled it, even though we had some good looks and they had to make some big saves. We were looser than we normally are and Oscar had to face a lot of rubber from high-danger scoring areas.”
To give you an idea of how deep these two teams are, 23 players have picked up at least one point through the first two games.
The Wolves will now host the next three games of the series, beginning on Wednesday night. They are 7-2 at the Allstate Arena during the postseason.