Checkers Step up in Win over Milwaukee
Prior to Saturday's game against the Milwaukee Admirals, Checkers head coach Jeff Daniels challenged his top offensive players to step up. It appears that the message was received.
Chris Terry, Zach Boychuk, Justin Shugg and Aaron Palushaj scored goals as the Checkers earned a 4-1 win to kick off a 10-game home stand at Time Warner Cable Arena. John Muse made 27 saves as the team halted a two-game losing streak in the first of back-to-back meetings with the Admirals.
Coming off a 5-2 defeat in Norfolk on Wednesday in which two players sent down from the NHL that day - Emerson Etem and Devante Smith-Pelley - torched the Checkers for three points apiece, Daniels had made it clear that he expected the same kind of impact from his core group.e
"We talked to them before the game and said we needed our best players to be our best players," said Daniels. "I thought that was the case tonight, and it showed their character and their leadership for stepping up."
"Obviously we've been going through a tough stretch here," said Boychuk, whose team had lost nine of 10 games heading into Saturday. "(Daniels) pointed out that after last game your best players have to be your best players, and against Norfolk they were and we weren't. It was nice to see a couple of guys step up and get on the board."
Terry's goal, his second in as many games and team-leading eighth of the season, got things started early in the second period when Brett Sutter found him open in the right circle for his trademark one-time blast that goalie Magnus Hellberg could only partially touch with his glove.
Ten minutes later, Terry struck just eight seconds into a Checkers power play by finding Boychuk open in a similar area for a perfectly-placed wrist shot that hit the top corner, ensuring that both players would enjoy two-point nights.
When Shugg added a third goal for his fourth point in his last four games (3g, 1a) since ending a six-game drought, it gave the Checkers their first three-goal lead since Oct. 31 - their last win before suffering through a franchise-record, seven-game losing streak that ended last week. After Milwaukee got one back, Palushaj scored into the empty net after the Checkers missed a previous chance to ice the game on an extended five-on-three in the final minutes.
Though the team hadn't been able to build on last week's slump-busting victory until tonight, it felt as though a breakout like this wasn't far off. After all, it had been tied early in the third period of each of its last three losses.
"I thought we had two strong games last week," said Daniels. "The guys are obviously tired of losing and wanted to get back on track."
"We've been preaching to work hard, and as long as you work hard you start getting those bounces that other teams are getting," said Muse. "We had a good couple of practices this week, and I thought it showed tonight in the game."
Muse very narrowly lost his bid at what would have been an AHL-best third shutout of the season when Miikka Salomaki beat him on a shot that hit multiple parts of the net behind him midway through the third period, prompting a video review that confirmed it to be a goal.
"Just by the sound of it, I thought it was in," admitted Muse.
Earlier in the game, Muse had to shake off an apparent injury when Milwaukee's Taylor Beck's knee collided with his head on a first-period scoring chance. Though he lay on the ice for several seconds as he conversed with the team trainer, he was able to stay in the game and made a string of tough stops in the following minutes.
Following the game, Muse said that he was mostly being cautious and felt fine. Center Sean Dolan, who left the game following an awkward hit into the boards in the first period, did not have as much luck, with Daniels saying after the game that he will "miss some time."
Already playing without Dolan, the Checkers also lost Nicolas Blanchard in the second period when the veteran forward received a game misconduct for being the third man in an already-ensuing altercation. The play started when Milwaukee's Michael Liambas, who fought Matt Corrente in the first period, charged Blanchard with a high hit that knocked off his helmet. Blanchard immediately got to his feet and went after Liambas, though Matt Marquardt had just barely gotten there first.
That sequence, along with a handful of others throughout the game, could give the team a further boost than simply earning the two points, particularly with the teams playing each other again on Sunday afternoon.
"(The Admirals) were down and were trying to create some energy and give their bench a spark, and I thought we handled it well," said Daniels.
"It brings the guys together," said Boychuk. "There were some hits out there that were a little off the cuff. When guys like (Marquardt) jump in that - he's not really a fighter even though he's a big guy - to see a guy like that step in for Blanch and come together is definitely going to help us and hopefully help us string together some wins."
They'll look to a new month - the team finished 2-9-0 in November - and a long run of home games to accomplish that feat.
"It was a tough month for us and we went through a real tough stretch, but in general we're a better team now," said Daniels. "We've had a couple of additions and hopefully (injured defenseman) Michal Jordan's not too far off which will make us stronger, but we've got to make sure the guys that are in the lineup are ready tomorrow."
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