James Neal scores the game-winner, leads the Springfield Thunderbirds to a 2-0 lead against Charlotte Checkers (photos)

SPRINGFIELD — The Charlotte Checkers took the lead, but the special teams Springfield Thunderbirds came alive in the third period as James Neal scored the game-winning goal in the final seconds of regulation at the MassMutual Center on Wednesday night.

After 47 saves from goaltender Joel Hofer, Springfield now holds a 2-0 lead against Charlotte in the best of five Atlantic Division championships.

“I think we showed up for the last five minutes of this hockey game,” Thunderbirds coach Drew Bannister said. “I think we were lucky to win this one because the Checkers were the better team for 55 minutes.

“I hope it’s a positive learning lesson because we’ve always reacted well when we’ve played badly.”

With both teams even halfway through the final period, Alexander True changed that with a wrist, pushing Charlotte ahead. It didn’t last long, however, as Will Bitten redirected Klim Kostin’s initial shot attempt down the left wing, leveling the score at 3-3 with 3:05 left in regulation time.

After back-to-back penalties secured 4-on-4 hockey for the remaining minutes, Cale Fleury collided with a Thunderbird near center ice, resulting in another costly penalty. But as minutes turned to seconds before potential overtime, Neal scored his first playoff goal, helping Springfield emerge victorious.

“It was a good reaction,” Neal said of his game-winning goal. “I think any time you play in the playoffs and you score a goal late in the third period to win the game, it’s great. The guys did a good job on the draw and stuck together to keep things alive.

“And (Brady) Lyle got a good low kick for the tip.”

After four minutes of scoreless action, Checkers won possession and didn’t miss.

Moments after Hofer denied Gustav Olofsson’s first backhand attempt, his teammate Zac Dalpe was there for the rebounder before finally falling to his knees with 15:38 remaining in the first period. The goal secured Charlotte their first series lead, while Olofsson registered his second assist.

The Checkers had just warmed up.

Twenty-five seconds after Hugh McGing’s hook penalty, Aleksi Heponiemi linked to Dalpe outside the enclosure, doubling their team’s cushion to 2-0 with 7:21 remaining on the clock. The score was Dalpe’s second in the game and seventh on the team, while Scott Wilson got the secondary pass.

But during the final moments of the period, Tommy Cross halved Springfield’s deficit to 2-1 with 1:29 left. The goal was Cross’s second, while Nathan Todd and Nikita Alexandrov posted their third assists on the game.

Charlotte held a one-goal lead and a 15-9 advantage over the Thunderbirds in the opening intermission.

“For some reason I don’t think we had our legs tonight because we were a bit behind,” Neal said. “That being said, timing, goals and respect have proven to be vital.”

After failing on their previous power play attempt, Springfield got an extra assist to start the second as back-to-back penalties against Max McCormick and Gustav Olofsson opened up a 5-on-3 opportunity. Moments later, Sam Anas located Lyle near the left red faceoff circle for a one-timer past tackle Joey Daccord, tying the score at 2-2 in 23 minutes.

The Thunderbirds erased an early two-goal deficit behind Lyle’s first score and Anas’ eight assist in the playoffs. Neal was also credited with a secondary assist.

Despite 10 penalties combined, including McCormick’s double-minor for a high stick, the two teams remained in a 2-2 stalemate through two.

Springfield is now looking to sweep the series against Charlotte in Game 3, scheduled for Saturday at Bojangles’ Coliseum. The puck drop is scheduled for 6 p.m.

“We have to play our game,” Bannister said. “We weren’t comfortable tonight, so give them credit because they made us that way. Sometimes in the playoffs it’s hard to win. And sometimes you’d rather be comfortable than be uncomfortable.

“We know we have to be much better if we want to beat them there.”

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