Checkers facing familiar climb against Bears

Photo: Gregg Forwerck

📝 by Patrick Williams

The Charlotte Checkers have two items in view right now.

Tonight’s must-win Game 3 of their Atlantic Division semifinal series in Hershey comes first. But they are also looking to the Florida Panthers, their National Hockey League parent club, for both inspiration and a road map out of this predicament.

The Panthers fell behind 3-1 in the first round of their Stanley Cup Playoff series with the Boston Bruins, an opponent that set NHL single-season records in both wins (65) and points (135). Three games later, Boston’s season was finished, and Florida was on to a second-round match-up with Toronto.

The Checkers will also have to win three consecutive games — all on the road — to advance past the Bears after losing the first two games of their best-of-five series over the weekend. Having arrived in Hershey, the Checkers settled in at Giant Center on Tuesday afternoon as they prepared to play their first road game of the Calder Cup Playoffs.

“This is something we talked about as a group,” Checkers head coach Geordie Kinnear said. “You have to earn your right to be in the playoffs. This is the best time as an athlete. Go enjoy it. Be the best version of yourself and have fun with it.

“I think when you look at Florida, they went to Game 7. They had a ton of fun. They played to win the whole way through.”

Fending off elimination has become familiar, if unsettling, ground for the Checkers, who twice faced must-win games in their best-of-three first-round series against Lehigh Valley. In Game 2 of that series, the Checkers lost a two-goal lead in the third period before taking the contest in double overtime. A night later, they blasted the Phantoms, 6-0, and put away the series.

So, this is a team that can manage pressure and excel.

“Obviously we have a lot to overcome,” Kinnear said. “This group has done it all year. Now we have to do it again.”

One area that Kinnear is addressing is his club’s response to in-game momentum shifts. In Game 2 against Hershey, they had worked for more than 30 minutes of play to chip away at Hershey’s 2-0 lead, finally breaking through with 10:45 to play in regulation — only to see the Bears respond 35 seconds later. Hershey didn’t let up, either, scoring again in another 23 seconds to break the game open.

“[Don’t] make two mistakes in a row,” Checkers forward Cory Conacher said. “If you make one, know someone is there to back up.”

That same issue hampered Charlotte in Game 1 as well. Hershey scored twice in a 2:31 span in the first period and then added two more goals 1:57 apart the following period. Momentum shifts also were an issue for the club against Lehigh Valley and date back to the regular season.

“It’s something that, as a young group and as a group that we want to continue to play, we have to fix in a hurry,” Kinnear acknowledged. “You have to learn lessons along the way.”

Conacher learned some of those lessons 11 years ago as a rookie with the Norfolk Admirals. That club won an AHL-record 28 consecutive games and went on to capture the Calder Cup. Conacher, who signed a professional tryout deal with the Checkers on Feb. 22, was also a Calder Cup finalist in 2015 (Utica) and 2017 (Syracuse) and won a league championship playing in Switzerland for SC Bern.

“The last game’s always the hardest on [Hershey’s] side, so we’ve got to just know that we’ve got to give them a good test,” Conacher said of Game 3.

Two key figures in Charlotte this season, goaltender Alex Lyon and captain Zac Dalpe, remain on recall with Florida. But if the Bears are to take this series then Charlotte wants to make them earn it.

“It has been a group all year that has overcome a lot,” Kinnear said. “We’ll play hockey and play well. Go have fun with it. You earned the right to be here.

“Keep going.”