Checkers stepping up to win

Unlikely heroes shine in playoffs

Staff writerApril 30, 2011 

Zac Dalpe is scoring some big goals for the Charlotte Checkers in the Calder Cup playoffs, and Mike Murphy has been stellar in net.

To succeed in playoff hockey, a team needs its stars to play like stars and to have confidence in its goaltending. So it has been for the Checkers, who topped the Hershey Bears in the first round of the AHL playoffs and edged the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins 3-2 Thursday in Game 1 of the East Division finals.

Dalpe scored early, Jon Matsumoto added a pair of goals, and Murphy had 28 saves against the Penguins. Game 2 is tonight in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

But the Checkers' playoff success doesn't just rest with a Dalpe or Murphy. It also has come from Nick Dodge winning a critical faceoff, or Brett Sutter forcing a key turnover or Casey Borer's stickwork helping kill off a penalty.

Or an unlikely hero, Nicolas Blanchard, scoring an overtime winner to finish off the Bears in six games, the defending Calder Cup champs.

"Those are the guys, not just in the playoffs but the regular season, who do all the little things you don't read about or see on the highlights but coaches really appreciate," Checkers coach Jeff Daniels said this week. "Those are the guys you trust late in the game.

"Come playoff time, you see that at every level, when the games get a little tighter and the games mean a little more those guys don't have to change their game. They've been doing it all season."

Dodge and Blanchard, both forwards, were sixth-round draft picks by the Carolina Hurricanes - Dodge in 2006 and Blanchard in 2005. Neither has played an NHL game for the Canes, but they're leaders for this Checkers team, both serving as alternate captains.

"That's what they say about those good playoff teams, that you need those unsung heroes," forward Zach Boychuk said. "You need that depth. Blanchard and Nick Dodge had huge games against Hershey."

Dodge, 24, scored just five goals in 57 regular-season games but had three goals in the series against Hershey. A year ago, then with the Albany River Rats, he had four goals in eight playoff games.

"He's a guy who steps up this time of year," Daniels said. "Look at last year in the playoffs. He was probably our best forward, scoring a lot of big goals for us. He's one of those guys who come playoff time doesn't seem to mind the pressure."

Blanchard, 23, is a gritty, physical type who bangs and usually leaves the scoring to the more skilled forwards. He had eight goals - and 101 penalty minutes - in 72 games this season.

Blanchard, Dodge and others on the Checkers were playing for the River Rats in the 2008-09 season and were on the team bus when it crashed on an icy Massachusetts highway returning from a game. No one was killed in the February 2009 accident, but Blanchard suffered severe lacerations.

"After the doctor said I would be OK, I just took it day by day," Blanchard said. "Hockey is my life. I did all I could to be better than I was."

Said Daniels: "He went through that scary incident and didn't know what was going to happen in regards to the future. But he battled back."

Against Hershey, Game 6 went to overtime. Blanchard said he noticed from the bench that the Checkers were down a player, that forward Oskar Osala had missed his shift.

"For about 15 seconds, we were four-on-five," Blanchard said.

So Blanchard jumped on the ice. Or as Murphy put it, "Maybe the hockey gods pushed him out there."

Moments later, Dodge backhanded a pass to Blanchard crashing the net. A quick swipe by Blanchard and the Checkers had won 2-1.

"That was kind of fun," said a smiling Blanchard, who also had a goal in Charlotte's Game 4 victory.

To beat the Penguins, the Checkers will need to continue getting contributions from many.

"It will take all 20 guys doing a good job of working together," Blanchard said.

Stars and unsung guys alike.

chip.alexander@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8945

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