Emerging from a dominant, but ultimately doomed effort last night, the Ontario Reign hoped for a more fruitful result this afternoon.
However, six minutes in, it was the Checkers who feasted. Jordan Samuels-Thomas, Andrew Crescenzi, Kevin Raine, and Jeff Schultz couldn't get off the ice after over a minute and a half on the PK, and Zach Boychuk squirted free to cash some change off the side. Samuels-Thomas, in particular, had a rough go of it, going from a crowd-pleasing, flailing shot block of a Jake Chelios blast to blowing Ontario's sole opportunity to clear.
Even at evens, the Reign couldn't strike up much offense. Jonny Brodzinski was probably the team's most effective attacker during this period with a couple chances, the most dangerous a backhander after a pretty pull-and-drag sent Keegan Lowe into another area code.
But these few-and-far-between opportunities were matched by Charlotte. With about five minutes to go in the first, Zach Leslie's backhand clear from in front of Peter Budaj set up Boychuk for a left dot one-timer. It hasn't been the cleanest of weekends for the rookie blueliner.
So while the first 20 ended with even strength chances at three apiece, the Checkers were up on the scoreboard and with 10-4 shots.
For the hosts, the second period resembled its predecessor too closely, as Sergey Tolchinsky's long PP bid from just above the top left circle eluded Budaj just a minute in. Nick Ebert may have screened or deflected, but from that distance, it was one the usually reliable keeper probably regrets. This was the keeper's 14th straight start, but when asked about trying backup Michael Houser with another busy week coming up, Coach Mike Stothers was almost unequivocal, "I would spell Budaj with M-V-P...so, at this point, not likely." It is true that the Slovakian more or less paces the league in most goaltending categories.
After surrendering a pair of power play markers to Charlotte, you'd think Ontario would be eager to try their hand on the man advantage. They'd get their chance just six minutes into the middle frame, but a series of unforced Reign errors cleared the zone more effectively than anything the Checkers did.
In all, the home team didn't have much room to navigate, and that's exactly what Charlotte wanted. Halfway into this period, both squads had combined for seven total shots and just one ES chance.
However, just as Ontario was peeking its head out its hole, the visitors shoveled dirt. So while the two minutes that Kevin Gravel and Raine spent in their own zone only led to only a single Lowe chance, it was telling of the team's general inability to break out with any consistency. In the latter half of the second, the Checkers more or less squatted in Reign territory; the home team just couldn't evict.
"They weren’t doing anything that we hadn’t seen. We just need to execute," said Sean Backman. "Our lineup’s young right now, but that’s not an excuse. We just have to be better."
A fresh sheet of ice finally brought an inspired surge from Ontario. In just the first three minutes of the final frame, they pelted Daniel Altshuller with four excellent chances, highlighted by Backman forechecking the puck out of Lowe, springing Joel Lowry and Derek Army for a two-on-one. Lowry passed through a swimming Chelios, and Army forced Altshuller to make a beautiful post-to-post left pad stop. The goal light blared, but it wasn't even close. Valentin Zykov, Brodzinski, and Andrew Crescenzi also spoke up, but Altshuller shushed.
This might have been the home team's most robust push, but to their credit, they kept straining. With seven minutes remaining, Zykov's shorthanded break went wide. Seconds later, Backman fired a 3-on-2 feed from Dowd right into the 6'3" Altshuller. Then Lowry drew a penalty after Danny Biega took exception to being smashed into the boards by the big winger. On the ensuing power play, the Reign threw everything, including their own bodies, at the net—everything, except the puck.
The third period was an example of Score Effects 101. Like last night, Ontario had eight ES chances to Charlotte's zero. But unlike last night, the Checkers outplayed their counterparts for most of this game. It should be noted that the visitors are enjoying a 10-game points streak with eight wins.
As he has for most of the season, Stothers kept it positive, "You know what, I’d be more concerned if our guys weren’t taking it as hard as they were or that they are." Dropping five of seven and slipping from the top of the Western Conference hasn't altered the head coach's aim. "I just told them after the game, 'Don’t think about what’s going wrong. Take tomorrow, we’re going to have a recovery day and think about what you do well. As an individual and as a team.' You know what, we do a lot of things well.
"So if you go and take that day and rather than beat yourself up about it, just think about it, 'Hey, what do I do well? What’s my strengths? What do I do for this team?' Hopefully, you’ll be ready for Tuesday."
Nonetheless, this lack of finish must be at least a little frustrating. The Reign have gone eight games without scoring more than two—that's just 12 markers in that stretch. Budaj and the ever-enviable team defensive structure provide a solid foundation, but who will step up with some goals?