By Cliff Mehrtens
© 2005 Charlotte Observer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – A hot goaltender is the best weapon in hockey playoffs.
The Charlotte Checkers have Alex Westlund (pictured), and their deepest trip into the playoffs in nine years.
Westlund stopped 50 shots in a 3-0 victory against the Gwinnett Gladiators in Game 4 of the ECHL American Conference semifinals at Cricket Arena. Charlotte won the series 3-1 with its third straight victory.
“The important thing is we’re moving on,” Westlund said. “They’re a team that shoots the puck a lot, so any goalie can get into a groove.”
The Checkers will play the Florida Everblades in the best-of-7 conference finals. Games 1 and 2 will be Monday and Wednesday at Germain Arena in Estero.
Charlotte advanced to the third round for the first time since its championship season in 1995-96. Its two playoff series victories this season are one more than the past seven seasons combined.
The shutout was Charlotte’s first in the playoffs since Nick Vitucci shut out Roanoke in the 1996 postseason opener.
The same trend emerged for the fourth straight game. Gwinnett had a huge shot advantage (50-23), but never solved Westlund. The Gladiators fired 198 shots in the series (to Charlotte’s 115), and Westlund stopped 192.
“Playoffs are always fun,” Westlund said. “Our crowds at home have been fantastic, the energy in the building. We’re having fun, and that’s what happens when you win.”
Every time a puck trickled into the crease, Westlund deflected, smothered or sent a harmless rebound near a teammate.
“He’s been excellent all year, real steady,” coach Derek Wilkinson said. “Now he’s turned it up a notch, which is incredible. You can stay hot for a long time. It’s important that we give him protection.”
Charlotte’s first goal came from an unlikely source. Defenseman Regan Darby, who missed the past three games with a back injury, scored early in the second period on a high slapshot from the top of the right face-off circle. It was his fourth goal in four seasons.
“I just got out of the (penalty) box, and the puck just popped onto my stick,” Darby said. “I didn’t know it went in until everybody started cheering.”
Gwinnett led in shots 22-6 when Darby scored.
The Gladiators played the first period with the desperation expected from a team facing elimination. They had 19 of the first 21 shots, and often controlled the puck as if it was on a power play.
The clincher came when Charlotte center Ryan Lang made it 2-0 on a low wrister in the third period, his second goal in as many games.
The Checkers rallied from an 0-2 series deficit to beat Columbia, and lost the opener against Gwinnett.
“When the chips are down, we seem to be able to dig deeper,” Wilkinson said. “That’s a big part of the development process. These kids are learning they have more and more in the tank they never knew about.”