Champions: Charlotte Checkers hold off Wolves to win their first AHL Calder Cup

The Charlotte Checkers won the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup on Saturday night, scoring two empty-net goals in the final two minutes and beating the Chicago Wolves 5-3.

The Checkers, who had the AHL’s best overall record, won the best-of-7 series in five games. After losing the series opener, Charlotte won four in a row – the last three at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois.

It is Charlotte’s first championship in the AHL, hockey’s top minor league. The Checkers, an affiliate of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes, are in their ninth AHL season.

The game was a tightly-played defensive struggle for the opening 54 minutes, then turned into a shootout in the closing six minutes.

Charlotte goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic was brilliant for much of the game, making several outstanding saves. But in the end, the Checkers needed their offense to survive.

Trevor Carrick scored on a slap shot with 6:15 left in the third period, giving the Checkers what seemed to be a safe 3-1 lead.

But the Wolves pulled goaltender Oscar Dansk with 3:20 remaining, and Gage Quinney scored on a rebound 14 seconds later, cutting Charlotte’s lead to 3-2.

With the Wolves still holding a six-to-five skater advantage, the Checkers’ Andrew Poturalski stole the puck at center ice and flicked it into the empty Chicago goal, giving Charlotte a 4-2 lead. That goal was the 12th in the playoffs for Poturalski, who won the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs.

Once again, the Wolves came back, as Cody Glass scored on a slap shot with 38 seconds to play. Chicago desperately tried to get a tying goal in the closing seconds, but Zach Nastasiuk stole the puck and drilled it down the rink, into the empty Chicago net for the final goal.

As they had done in three of the first four games of the finals, the Checkers jumped to an early lead.

The game’s opening goal came from Poturalski, who took a pass from Aleksi Saarela and beat Dansk on a low shot.

The Checkers outshot Chicago 13-6 in the period, but Nedeljkovic made several big saves in the period.

Morgan Geekie, the leading rookie goal-scorer in the playoffs, put Charlotte ahead 2-0 with 11:35 remaining in the second period. A Chicago defender tried to clear the puck away, but it bounced out to Geekie, standing 6 feet from the goal. He smacked the puck through Dansk’s legs.

Nedeljkovic made a big glove save on Curtis McKenzie with 31 seconds left in the period, but Brooks Macek scored for Chicago six seconds later, deflecting in a shot by Tomas Hyka.

3 who mattered

Andrew Poturalski, Charlotte: Named the Calder Cup playoffs’ most valuable player, Poturalski scored two goals, including what turned out to be the game-winner. He finishes the playoffs with 12 goals and 23 points.

Alex Nedeljkovic, Charlotte: Nedeljkovic made 26 saves, including one on a Tomas Hyka breakaway in the third period. Nedeljkovic came out of the goal and smothered the puck.

Trevor Carrick, Charlotte: His slap-shot goal with 6:15 remaining in the third period gave Charlotte a 3-1 lead.

Checkers plan championship reception

The Checkers will host a public reception for the Calder Cup champion team at 7 p.m. Monday at Bojangles’ Coliseum. Parking will be free, and there will be no admission charge.

Checkers officials said there will be photo opportunities with the Calder Cup and autograph sessions with players.

Worth mentioning

Saturday’s game drew a crowd of 8,535 to Allstate Arena. It was the Wolves’ biggest turnout in the playoffs.

Both of the Calder Cup finalists are good at maintaining a lead in the third period. Prior to Saturday night, the Checkers were 48-0 this season when leading after two periods. Chicago was 43-2, although the Wolves lost Thursday night after holding a 3-2 lead over Charlotte entering the third period.

The Wolves were missing two players due to injuries Saturday night – Daniel Carr, the league MVP this season; and Stefan Matteau, who scored the winning goal in Game 1.

Chicago was trying to become the first team in 70 years to win the Calder Cup after falling behind 3-1 in the finals.

Just for the record … the Calder Cup is named for Frank Calder, who was the NHL’s first president (1917-1940) and is credited for helping launch the AHL. The cup is 24 inches tall and weighs 25 pounds.

While the Checkers had never won the Calder Cup, they won the Eastern Hockey League playoffs in 1957, 1971 and 1972; the Southern Hockey League in 1975 and 1976; and the ECHL in 1996. The Charlotte Knights won the Class AAA International League in 1993 and 1999, and the city also had champions at lower minor-league levels in baseball and soccer.

AHL Calder Cup Finals

Chicago Wolves vs. Charlotte Checkers

Game 1: Wolves 4, Checkers 3 (OT)

Game 2: Checkers 5, Wolves 3

Game 3: Checkers 4, Wolves 1

Game 4: Checkers 5, Wolves 3

Game 5: Checkers 5, Wolves 3

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