The Wolves got Curtis McKenzie back from suspension Thursday. But they weren’t able to survive the absence of another important player.
Without league MVP Daniel Carr, the Wolves lost 5-3 to the Checkers, giving Charlotte a 3-1 lead in the Calder Cup Finals.
The Checkers rallied from a 3-1 deficit and took the lead on Aleksi Saarela’s goal with 7:08 left in the third period. They can win the AHL title Saturday in Rosemont.
After the game, Wolves coach Rocky Thompson reminded his team about how tight this series has been and that they can still beat the Checkers.
That may be true, but Thompson’s team let a key game get away and needs to win three in a row to capture the franchise’s fifth league title.
“You should grieve this,’’ Thompson said. ‘‘It stung. This one really hurt.”
Nic Hague, Zac Leslie and Brooks Macek scored to give the Wolves a 3-1 lead late in the second period. But the Checkers showed the Wolves and everyone else why they led the league in points and wins, getting a power-play goal from Martin Necas at the 19-minute mark of the second period, then the equalizer 32 seconds into the third from Nicolas Roy.
Facing Checkers goalie Dustin Tokarski, who played instead of Alex Nedeljkovic because it was the second game of a back-to-back, the Wolves couldn’t muster anything else.
Checkers coach Mike Vellucci said he considered starting Nedeljkovic a night after he made 38 saves, but he ended up sticking with his plan to go with Tokarski.
His reasoning for sticking with Tokarski, who hasn’t lost since joining Charlotte late in the season, made sense.
“He’s 12-0 for us,” Vellucci said. “He’s another one of those great guys. Unbelievable leader.”
Saarela’s goal, followed by Roy’s empty-netter, sent the Wolves to the brink of elimination even though they led for much of the game.
“It’s a really special group we have in this room,” McKenzie said. “Now it’s just, you win a game, you get to play another game with each other. I think that’s what we’re looking at, just the chance to continue playing with each other. You can’t look too far ahead.
“Just be ready for Saturday.”
To take three in a row from the Checkers, the Wolves will need to correct a few things.
Their power play struggled, going 0-for-4. Charlotte was 1-for-3 on the power play.
Wolves goalie Oscar Dansk (18 saves) didn’t sound too thrilled with his performance, either.
“I thought the guys played good enough for us to win,” Dansk said. “I don’t think I, obviously, played well enough.”
Getting Carr back Saturday would be a boost, but Thompson said he’s day-to-day with an undisclosed injury.
Possibly going forward without Carr and pulling off three consecutive victories against the best team in the league would fit the Wolves’ narrative of overcoming adversity.
But it’s a pretty huge ask.
“They’re the best team in the league all year,” McKenzie said. “They’re so skilled, they don’t need much room to make plays.”