By Cliff Mehrtens
The Charlotte Observer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Charlotte Checkers, who officially announced their move to the new uptown arena Wednesday, put on a pretty good show in the old one.
Charlotte dominated the Gwinnett Gladiators 4-1 in Game 3 of the ECHL American Conference semifinals at Cricket Arena.
The Checkers lead 2-1 in the best-of-5 series, and can clinch at 7:05 p.m. Thursday in Charlotte.
It was a simple case of more hustle and smarter decisions.
“And we got some bounces,” coach Derek Wilkinson said. “When you make smart decisions, work hard and put it all together, you get lucky sometimes.”
Charlotte is 27-8-4 at home, including 3-0 in the playoffs. Ten Checkers registered a point, and the only one to double up was Ryan Lang (goal and assist).
“We were smarter with the puck,” captain Ryan Cuthbert (pictured) said. “We didn’t try to do too much, and when the puck needed to get out, we got it out. We scored some grindy-type goals. Guys going to the net hard and getting rewarded. “
Defenseman David Liffiton’s goal on a slapshot from the top of the face-off circle tied the game at 1 in the first period. Less than three minutes later, fellow rookie Lang ricocheted the puck off a defender past goalie Sean Fields.
Dwight Helminen’s 5-on-3 tip-in made it 3-1 early in the second, and Cuthbert’s rebound goal, a heads-up play in the crease, made it 4-1 late in the second.
Field was benched after Cuthbert’s score. It was second straight game Charlotte chased the starting goalie.
Charlotte has played solid defense in the series. It killed all seven short-handed situations Wednesday.Alex Westlund stopped 33 of 34 shots, bumping his series total to 142-of-148 (.959 save percentage). He leads the ECHL in playoff minutes (506) and saves.
“The main difference is we have the best player,” Wilkinson said. “Alex has been the best player for both teams in all three games. When you have that in goal, it’s good for us.”
The Checkers won’t relax tonight. They were the team facing elimination three straight games in the previous series against Columbia.
“We know they’re going to come out real desperate,” Wilkinson said. “If we don’t match that, we’re going to be in big trouble. If we do, I like our chances.”