By Cliff Mehrtens
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – They’re not finished yet.
The Charlotte Checkers escaped elimination with a 3-1 victory against the Columbia Inferno in Game 3 of the ECHL playoff series at Cricket Arena on Saturday.
Columbia leads the series 2-1. Game 4 in the best-of-5 series will be 5 p.m. today in Charlotte.
Kenton Smith (pictured) scored the winner with 2 minutes, 17 seconds left to cap a 2-on-1 break with Ryan Lang. It was a low forehand laser to the glove side of goalkeeper Mike Minard.
Dwight Helminen sealed it with an empty-net goal.
“We have to play every shift like it’s our last,” said Smith, who played forward and defense. “Make no mistakes, because they’re playing great, too.”
Charlotte was limited to two goals in the first two games, both in Columbia.
“It was finally nice to break through,” coach Derek Wilkinson said. “We’ve worked, we’ve worked and worked, and haven’t seemed to be able to get any bounces. We got one our way.
“Smitty was great. He was all over the place and it was great to see him get rewarded with the game-winning goal.”
Alex Westlund stopped 27 of 28 shots, and Charlotte won its first playoff game in three seasons.
It was a scrappy, hard-hitting game with the dash of ill will you’d expect from teams meeting for the 13th time this season. Today’s game will be the third in three days.
Charlotte led 1-0 in the first when rookie Lee Falardeau stole the puck near Columbia’s net and flicked a 6-foot backhand past Minard, who had 26 saves.
Columbia tied it at 1 when Ryan Campbell corralled a loose puck in the high slot and backhanded it past Westlund with 70 seconds left in the second period.
It could have been an emotional downer for Charlotte, which had it fresh in its mind in the break between periods.
“We didn’t panic,” Wilkerson said. “We played with poise and confidence, and that’s what I like to see. I liked our aggression, we weren’t afraid to lose the game. We were going to go all out and make them beat us.”