By Cliff Mehrtens
© 2005 Charlotte Observer
COLUMBIA, S.C. – It was as huge a comeback as possible.
The Charlotte Checkers’ 4-3 overtime victory against the Columbia Inferno in Game 5 ended their best-of-5 ECHL playoff series at Carolina Coliseum on Wednesday.
Charlotte won the final three games, and stopped a five-game winless streak in Columbia.
The winner came on rookie Lee Falardeau’s wrister into an open net 5 minutes, 49 seconds into overtime. Falardeau (pictured), who played at Michigan State, scored the game’s final three goals.
Charlotte’s Dwight Helminen won a face-off in Columbia’s zone, the puck went to Eddie Pershin, who skated left of goalie Mike Minard and slid a pass to Falardeau’s forehand side.
“Our team has a lot of heart, we knew we weren’t out of it by far,” Falardeau said.
The Checkers erased a 3-1 second-period deficit.
“The goals Lee scored were typical for him, all extra effort,” coach Derek Wilkinson said. “It’s amazing to get a hat trick in a game like this.”
Charlotte advances to play the Gwinnett Gladiators in the best-of-5 American Conference semifinals. Games 1 and 2 will be Sunday and Monday at Gwinnett (an Atlanta suburb), games 3 and 4 Wednesday and Thursday in Charlotte, and a fifth game at Gwinnett on Saturday, if necessary.
Falardeau cut it to 3-2 on a power-play wrister, on a perfect feed from Helminen with six minutes left in the second. Falardeau tied it on a third-period wrister to Minard’s short side.
Charlotte was making its first playoff appearance in three years.
The previous two were Game 5 eliminations in 2002 and 2001. Charlotte hadn’t won a playoff series since 1998.
“In a series like this goals are hard to come by,” Checkers defenseman Rory Rawlyk said. “The boys came together and said it’s now or never.”
Charlotte goalie Alex Westlund made several acrobatic saves after Charlotte fell behind 3-1, and two Columbia shots clanged off the goal post.
Bogdan Rudenko’s goal 49 seconds into the first gave Charlotte a 1-0 lead.
It was the fastest goal to start a playoff game in Checkers history.