The Charlotte Checkers capped off their amazing season by winning the Calder Cup on Saturday night. The Carolina Hurricanes’ American Hockey League affiliate had a record-setting regular season which saw them win 51 games and earn 110 points, the most by any team in the league.
Their success carried over into the Calder Cup Playoffs as they finished their run to their first AHL title in franchise history with a 15-4 record. The Checkers won their final four games of the season after dropping Game 1 of the Calder Cup Final to the Chicago Wolves.
Checkers Start Fast and Never Stop
The Checkers smelled blood in the water and took the ice with a purpose. They played a relentless and smothering brand of hockey for much of the opening period and outshot the Wolves 13-6 before the first intermission.
Andrew Poturalski quieted the big crowd at Allstate Arena, just 91 seconds into the contest, by going upstairs for his AHL-leading 11th goal of the Calder Cup Playoffs.
All series long, the Checkers seemed to put every Wolves’ miscue into the back of the net. Another example occurred midway through the second period when Zach Whitecloud attempted to clear a rebound but put the puck directly on the stick of Morgan Geekie, who quickly doubled the Checkers’ lead.
The Wolves finally figured out Alex Nedeljkovic in the final minute of the middle frame. Tomas Hyka got to a loose puck in the slot and fired it towards the net and his shot hit off Brook Macek’s leg on its way past Nedeljkovic.
Geekie picked up his second point of the night, just over six minutes into the third period when Trevor Carrick blasted home a one-timer off of his faceoff win.
The final 3:06 of the series was one of the most exciting sequences of the entire season. It all started when Gage Quinney cut the lead down to 3-2, with goaltender Oscar Dansk pulled for an extra attacker. Just over a minute later, Poturalski scored into the empty net to restore the Checkers’ two-goal advantage.
“I give them credit,” Wolves head coach Rocky Thompson said after the game. “Every time we had an empty net, these guys were like sharpshooters.”
Cody Glass cut the Charlotte lead down to 4-3, with just 38.1 seconds to go, by blasting home a one-timer from the left dot. However, Zach Nastasiuk scored yet another empty-net goal to seal the deal.
“The guys wanted it really bad,” head coach Mike Vellucci said about the Checkers. “They didn’t want to play any more games and have that week off. I was a little nervous that we wanted it too much, but we came out and played the right way and they played great too.
“We wanted to win. We accept no losing. We want to get better as players obviously but we want to win. There’s the skill part of it, but developing winners is something that organizationally we needed. Mediocrity is no longer tolerated in our organization.”
Both Sides Gave Everything They Had
Even though they came up three wins short of their ultimate goal, pride was swelling from the Wolves locker room following Game 5.
“I thought we gave ourselves chances in every single game that we played and tonight was no different,” said Thompson. “What I’m proud of most, is I thought our team played the best they possibly could have. I said to our players ‘You shouldn’t be sad. I know it’s tough when you don’t win championships, but you shouldn’t be sad when that’s all you have. You did everything you could.’
“I’m really proud of that for them because that’s rare. I think our team epitomizes that the team is greater than the sum of its parts. I’m really proud of this group and what they did.”
T.J. Tynan, who won a Calder Cup with the Cleveland Monsters in 2016 and led the AHL in assists during the regular season, expressed his gratitude for his teammates.
“That’s going to be a tough pill to swallow for sure,” said Tynan. “For us, it was a special group. I told those guys in there that it was a lot of fun. Everyone worked their bag off. Really proud of everyone in that room for sure.”
Thompson also revealed that Stefan Matteau, who scored the overtime goal in Game 1, played half of Game 4 with a lacerated kidney. He was scratched for Game 5 after spending two days in the hospital.
“That’s old school right there,” Thompson said. “And there were other guys all banged up too. Stuff you would never know. Our defensemen; I don’t know there’s a single one that was healthy in there. They just did it for their team, they did it for their brothers.”
Speaking of injuries, Poturalski, who won the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as the most valuable player of the 2019 Calder Cup Playoffs, revealed that he was playing with a broken foot as well as a “few other injuries.”
“I feel unbelievable right now but it’s definitely been a grind,” he said. “Everyone has bumps and bruises and I’m no different. You’ve just got to battle through and the guys next to you and that’s what playoff hockey is all about.”
This is the first Calder Cup championship in the nine years since the Checkers moved into the AHL. It is the seventh championship in franchise history as they have won titles in the Eastern Hockey League, Southern Hockey League and ECHL.
The team will host a rally at their home arena, the Bojangles’ Coliseum, to celebrate with their Calder Cup victory with their fans on Monday night.