Skating on fumes, Calder Cup champs: Checkers capture hockey title not a day too soon

Something basic drove the Charlotte Checkers to their Calder Cup-clinching 5-3 victory Saturday night over the Chicago Wolves:

The Checkers were ready for the season to be over.

“We had no intention of going back home and going to practice on Monday or Tuesday, whatever it would have been,” Charlotte goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic said after his team captured the American Hockey League’s top prize in Rosemont, Ill.

“We’re exhausted,” coach Mike Vellucci added. “We didn’t want to play any more games.”

The Checkers accomplished two goals – winning the franchise’s first AHL championship and starting summer vacation – by playing solid defense for 57 minutes, and then outlasting the Wolves in a wild finish.

After spotting Chicago a one-game lead in the best-of-7 series, Charlotte won four straight — including three on the road — capping a 15-4 record through four rounds of playoffs.

The Checkers knew that losing Saturday would have meant a return to Charlotte and several more days of practice before Game 6 at Bojangles’ Coliseum on Thursday.

Instead, the team will host a public celebration 7 p.m. Monday at the coliseum.

“Hockey-wise, it’s a grind,” Vellucci said. “It’s June whatever it is. I don’t know if it’s a weekend or a weekday. I’m tired, the players are tired.

“Our guys wanted it really bad. I was a little nervous that we wanted it too much, but we came out and played the right way, and they (Wolves) played great too.”

Andrew Poturalski scored just 1:31 into the game, giving Charlotte a 1-0 lead, and Morgan Geekie’s goal at the 8:25 mark of the second period made it 2-0.

The Wolves battled back, cutting Charlotte’s lead to 2-1 on a Brooks Macek goal with 25 seconds left in the second. Trevor Carrick’s slap-shot goal about six minutes into the third period put the Checkers up 3-1, and that’s how it stayed until the wild finish.

Chicago pulled goaltender Oscar Dansk for an extra skater with 3:20 left, and the Wolves scored 14 seconds later on a Gage Quinney goal.

Fending off the swarming Wolves, Poturalski stole the puck near center ice and scored an empty net goal for a 4-2 lead with 1:44 to play.

The Wolves weren’t finished. They made it 4-3 on a Cody Glass goal with 38 seconds left. The Checkers responded with a Zach Nastasiuk empty-net score with 15 seconds to play.

Then the Checkers won control of the puck, and seconds later, Nedeljkovic began leaping at one end of the Allstate Arena rink, and his teammates were flinging sticks into the air and celebrating at center ice.

“To get the first championship in Checkers history and do it for (team owner) Michael Kahn and the city of Charlotte and all the guys in the room, we truly deserved it,” said Poturalski, who led the AHL in postseason scoring and was named the playoffs’ most valuable player.

“We worked our a---- off for that all year.”

Main option 2 or secondary
Charlotte Checkers forward Andrew Poturalski shows off the hardware to the fans at Allstate Arena after the team’s Calder Cup-clinching victory over Chicago Wolves in Game 5 of the series in Rosemont, Ill., on Saturday. It’s the first championship for the Checkers after nine seasons in the league. Poturalski was named the most valuable player for the AHL playoffs. Jacob Kupferman Charlotte Checkers

Three who mattered

Andrew Poturalski, Charlotte: His two goals gave him 12 for the playoffs, and he was named the postseason most valuable player.

Alex Nedeljkovic, Charlotte: The AHL’s goaltender of the year turned away 26 shots and made several spectacular saves in the second and third periods.

Morgan Geekie, Charlotte: Geekie, the AHL’s leading rookie scorer in the playoffs, added a goal and an assist to his postseason total.

Checkers MAIN option 1
Charlotte goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic begins the celebration as his teammates rush onto the ice after the horn sounded in Game 5 of the AHL Calder Cup Finals in Rosemont, Ill., on Saturday, a 5-3 victory over the Chicago Wolves that clinched the Checkers’ first championship in the league. Gregg Forwerck Charlotte Checkers

Worth mentioning

The Checkers became the fifth team in the AHL’s 82 seasons to win the finals after losing the opening game at home. The last to do so was Hershey in 2011.

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 baseball’s International League in 1993 and 1999, and the city also had champions at lower minor league levels in baseball and soccer.

They said it

”I love every one of these guys. Everybody says that, but I mean it. It was very emotional.” – Checkers coach Mike Vellucci.

Steve Lyttle on Twitter: @slyttle