Checkers Come Back, Top Norfolk in Shootout
Even though goalie Brad Thiessen had all the answers to that point, the Checkers felt like it was only a matter of time.
The Checkers fired a season-high 53 shots, the most they've taken in a game at Time Warner Cable Arena in four AHL seasons, en route to finally beating the standout Norfolk goaltender late in the third period of an eventual 4-3 shootout victory on Sunday. Newcomer Greg Nemisz had the tying goal with 5:13 left in a third period played most entirely in Norfolk's zone (the Checkers out-shot the Admirals 23-8 during the frame), with Charlotte scoring on each of its first three shootout attempts by Matthew Pistilli, Aaron Palushaj and Chris Terry.
Palushaj and Mark Flood had the Checkers' other goals to erase an early 2-0 deficit, with John Muse making 36 saves as Charlotte improved its record to 19-19-1, getting back to the .500 mark for the first time since Nov. 7.
Thiessen, the AHL's goaltender of the year in 2011, finished with 49 saves in his first game since suffering an injury on Dec. 9. He did not look the least bit rusty, holding a fatigued Admirals team that had played overtime games in Norfolk on each of the last two nights, arriving in Charlotte by bus around 5 a.m. that morning, in the game despite relentless pressure by the home team.
"I thought we kept our foot to the gas," said coach Jeff Daniels. "We talked about getting pucks deep because we knew they had tough travel and we wanted to just keep going after them. We finally got a lucky break to tie it up."
"We had a really good third period and it felt like we were building and building the whole time," said Nemisz. "The goalie made a couple of good saves and we stuck with it."
The goal came when Nemisz got three stabs at a loose puck in the slot, finally scoring on the third with a Norfolk defender draped over his shoulders. It was his first goal but fifth point in four games with the Checkers since the parent Carolina Hurricanes acquired him in a trade with Calgary on Dec. 30.
"He's been great," said Daniels of Nemisz. "Very quietly he's been a real solid player for us in all situations. He's in more of a defensive role with killing penalties, but he's a guy I wouldn't hesitate to put on the power play and create some offense. He's got a track record of a lot of points in junior and it hasn't happened yet in pro, but he's still a young guy and the change has been good for him."
"It's been fun," said Nemisz, a 23-year-old who the Flames chose 25th overall in the 2008 draft. "It's been a good start for the team really. We've been playing well and I've just kind of jumped right in."
The Checkers made quick work of only the second shootout they've played this season, with Pistilli and Palushaj scoring on well-placed shots and Terry, who scored two shootout goals in two NHL chances with Carolina earlier this season, finding the back of the net on a forehand-to-backhand deke similar to one by Norfolk's Emerson Etem that had beaten Muse just prior.
"At that point, you're just hoping you're picking the right guys and Muser is making the saves for you," said Daniels. "We've got some options to use, and some of those guys stepped up and scored."
"It's been a while," said Muse, who lost a shootout in his first game of the year with ECHL Fort Wayne before signing with the Checkers. "We practice them in practice and we're always doing them, so it's nothing new."
The win was Muse's second in as many days, as he narrowly missed a shutout in Saturday's 6-1 win over Texas. He also made a relief appearance during Friday's 7-1 loss, giving him the rare distinction of having to play three times in three days.
"It was good," said Muse. "I only played the one period on Friday and the early game yesterday so I was able to relax and recover for today's game."
Coming off Saturday's bounce-back win, the Checkers didn't come out with the level of emotion they had hoped, falling behind 2-0 on goals by Antoine Laganiere and John Kurtz just halfway through the first period. A spirited fight by rookie defenseman Keegan Lowe against Joseph Cramarossa changed all that, with Palushaj getting his fourth goal of the weekend on the power play two minutes later.
"We weren't playing with much emotion there, and then Keegan took it upon himself to give the team a spark," said Daniels of Lowe, who sat out as a healthy extra for the first time in his career on Saturday. "He was upset that he didn't play yesterday, he came out and played with an edge and he was a big part of the win tonight."
"Lowesie's fight there was the turning point of the game," said Nemisz. "We came out really flat and they were kind of out-battling us and that really gave us a spark and turned the game around."
The Checkers then tied it up with another power-play goal from Flood, a shot from the point that redirected off a Norfolk player's stick for his ninth goal and sixth power-play goal of the year, both of which tie him for second among AHL defensemen.
"I thought the power play struggled in the last couple of games," said Daniels, whose team went 0-for-10 on the man advantage during that time. "We were getting a little too casual with the puck and they worked a lot harder tonight."
Norfolk then took the lead on a power play of its own, with Alex Grant scoring just 1:26 into the third period, four seconds before a Philippe Cornet high-sticking penalty was set to expire. From there it was all Checkers, with the team finally able to dent Thiessen after wave upon wave of pressure. They almost won the game in overtime if not for a sprawling save by the veteran netminder, who grabbed Cornet's rebound attempt with his glove while sprawled out on his side.
With wins in each of the last two days, the Checkers were able to salvage a busy weekend that started in the toughest manner possible, with the team very nearly equaling franchise records for most goals allowed and largest loss margin on Friday.
"That was a good bounce back after a tough night," said Daniels. "It's one game we didn't want to dwell on. We wanted to move on. We talked about the good win last night and today was about getting back to .500 and moving on from there."
"I think we were pretty embarrassed with our effort, every guy, and I think we really changed how we were playing the last two days," said Muse. "When we play as we did yesterday and today, it shows we can be one of the better teams in the league."
Charlotte took a 6-4 points lead over Norfolk in the GEICO Challenge Cup standings, with the Checkers winning each of the last three games in Charlotte ... Palushaj extended his point streak to five games (5g, 3a) and now has 22 points (8g, 14a) in his last 16 outings ... Flood's nine goals are tied for the second-most by a Checkers defenseman in a single season and one short of the record held by Bobby Sanguinetti ... The Checkers' single-game record for shots is 54, set in a shootout loss to Peoria on Dec. 20, 2012 ... The Checkers' 23 shots in the third period were a season high ... Charlotte's last shootout win was against Houston on March 9 of last season ... Terry has 17 goals on 39 career AHL shootout chances. Pistilli is 5-for-12 and Palushaj is 10-for-28 ... Defenseman Michal Jordan had a game-high seven shots on goal ... Cornet played his 200th AHL game ... Forwards Nicolas Blanchard, Sean Dolan, Jared Staal and Brendan Woods sat out due to injury, while defenseman Beau Schmitz was a healthy extra.
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