By Cliff Mehrtens
© 2005 Charlotte Observer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Alex Westlund’s hockey career has taken him many places, from Yale, where he graduated in English, to Russia, where English was rare.
In between, he’s had the typical road-Atlas journey of a minor-leaguer — Dayton, Ohio; Cincinnati; Milwaukee; Worcester, Mass.; Toledo, Ohio; Trenton, N.J.; and Charlotte.
The latest stop is one of the brightest for Westlund, 29, the Checkers’ No. 1 goaltender. He was 27-15-5 in the regular season, and played every minute of the 3-2 playoff series victory against Columbia.
Westlund’s next task is a best-of-5 series against the Gwinnett Gladiators. Game 1 will be at 4:05 p.m. Sunday in Duluth, Ga.
“Winning the Columbia series was huge, down 2-0 and winning Game 5 on their home ice,” Westlund said. “We weren’t bad the first two games, but we weren’t playoff sharp by any means. Games 3, 4 and 5, we had that desperation you need in playoffs.”
The calm amidst the mayhem often was Westlund, who made several spectacular saves to keep Charlotte in games.
In Game 5, Columbia led 3-1 and it could have been worse — and fateful for Charlotte — if not for Westlund’s slick moves.
“Alex gave us a chance to win,” coach Derek Wilkinson said. “He made the big saves, but more important is his character. The guys rally around him.”
Charlotte won 4-3 in overtime Wednesday on Lee Falardeau’s third goal of the game.
Westlund, a sixth-year pro, is among a group of veterans Wilkinson signed for stability and leadership.
Westlund’s calm demeanor and steady hand have helped the Checkers weather call-ups, injuries and defections.
“I know how to prepare, and what we should be doing and shouldn’t be doing,” he said. “We have a lot of guys in this room who know what it takes to win.”
“We have 20 different characters here, and different guys prepare different ways. The bottom line with any good team is we all get along really well.”
Gwinnett dominated its 3-1 playoff series win against Mississippi with an 18-6 scoring advantage and 184-105 shot advantage. Ten Gwinnett players scored in the series.
“We’ve got to be physical, finish our checks and be real tough all over the ice,” Wilkinson said. “Of the four playoff teams left in our conference, they’re easily the best skating team, and probably the most skilled. We have to make it real tough on them.”
Charlotte is in the second round for the first time since 1998. Like the Columbia series, it will have to win on the road at least once to advance.
“We definitely want to split,” Wilkinson said, referring to today’s opener and Game 2 Monday. “Based on the last series, and how hard it was to win Game 5 in Columbia, it’d be a lot less taxing on us to go in and split, then bring it back here and try to finish it off.”