By John Devlin
COLUMBIA, S.C. – Goalie Mike Minard (pictured) stopped all 23 shots he faced while Matt Ulwelling and Chanse Fitzpatrick took care of the scoring as the Columbia Inferno opened the ECHL Kelly Cup playoffs Wednesday at the Carolina Coliseum with a 2-0 win against the Charlotte Checkers.
The second game of the best-of-five series will be Friday at the Coliseum.
“Charlotte is a team with a lot of offensive talent, and we had a few breakdowns in our own zone, but Mike did his job and deserved to be the No. 1 star,” Inferno coach Scott White said. “We have a lot of guys who haven’t been in playoff situations for a while, and I think we were a little bit nervous at first. But then we began to relax and limit their scoring chances.”
Minard, who finished the regular season with a 24-8-6 record and a 2.40 goals-against average, has had the Checkers’ number lately. He blanked Charlotte by the same 2-0 score in the final regular-season meeting between the teams on March 25.
Minard made a big save against Checkers winger Dwight Helminen on a 3-on-2 break in the second period and withstood a 5-on-3 Charlotte power-play advantage in the third.
“That was a huge penalty kill,” White said. “We had a 2-0 lead, but if they scored there, things could have been different.”
Ulwelling, who has goals in three consecutive games, scored on a 2-on-1 break from the left circle at 0:42 of the second period. The Inferno veteran broke out of the Charlotte zone with both teams skating a man down, dumped the puck to Robin Carruthers in neutral ice and zipped a wrist shot over the shoulder of Checkers goalie Alex Westlund.
“Getting the first goal gave us a big lift,” White said.
Fitzpatrick beat Westlund at 7:09 of the third period, converting a chance created by relentless forechecking.
“We had a pretty good overall effort tonight, but I told the guys they only had until midnight to celebrate,” White said. “It was good to win the opening game, but we’re only a third of the way there.”