WILKES-BARRE TWP. — It’s not the way Tom Kostopoulos wanted to go out, but the Charlotte Checkers gave him no choice.
The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins squandered a two-goal lead and couldn’t keep pace with Charlotte’s high-speed offense en route to a 7-3 loss. The three-game sweep eliminated the Penguins from the postseason and put an abrupt end to Kostopoulos’ 19-year career.
“It’s a tough way to go out,” said Kostopoulos, who announced on April 4 that he will retire at the end of the postseason. “I knew going into this series this could be it. And going down the first two games I knew this could be it.
“It just wasn’t going to happen tonight.”
The Penguins did a good job at staving off elimination by establishing an early lead with a pair of goals in the first eight minutes. Anthony Angello put home a rebound from a Teddy Blueger shot, followed by a Zach Trotman blast from the high slot that was deflected by Adam Johnson for a 2-0 lead.
But things unraveled minutes later.
Trotman exited the game after he was shaken up along the boards, leaving the Penguins with five defensemen. The Checkers took advantage Lucas Wallmark scored from the point, and 21 seconds later former Penguin Greg McKegg skated behind two defensemen to beat Tristan Jarry in front to tie it up. It marked the second time in the series that the Penguins squandered a two-goal lead.
The Penguins entered the game without defensemen Kevin Czuczman and Jarred Tinordi, and head coach Clark Donatelli said losing Trotman was a turning point against Charlotte’s high-powered offense.
“When you’re down to five D, it’s hard. It’s tough on those guys because in the D zone (Charlotte) spreads it out and works the puck around. Our guys were getting tired.”
During an evenly-matched second period when both teams exchanged chances, the Checkers gained the lead on a miscue by the Penguins.
Charlotte forward Aleksi Saarela skated down the far side, pulling Jarry out of the crease, and dished a pass in front that Jarrett Burton tried to swipe away but inadvertently knocked into his own net.
Down 3-2, the Penguins entered the third period with 1:18 of power-play time and an opportunity to erase the goal right away.
The Penguins blanked on the power play and then put Charlotte on the man advantage for the third time in the game.
The Checkers didn’t score on the power play, but they put the game away minutes later when Clark Bishop posted at the doorstep and put home a loose puck. Less than two minutes later, Andrew Miller roofed a shot over Jarry to make it 5-2.
“A couple of breakdowns,” Donatelli said. “It’s been the same thing all series — you have to play a full 60 against that team.”
The Penguins buried themselves deeper when Kostopoulos took a penalty during a scrum after the goal, and Blueger was called for a slash giving the Checkers 45 seconds with a two-man advantage.
Things got interesting when Charlotte goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic gloved the puck and waited for a whistle but didn’t get one. With Penguins swarming, Nedeljkovic tossed the puck behind the net where the Penguins gained control and Angello scored on a shot that leaked through Nedeljkovic to make it 5-3 with six minutes to play.
But two empty net goal by the Checkers did the Penguins in, ending their postseason and a career for Kostopoulos, who skated the last 21 seconds of the game for his final shift.
“It was nice to skate out there one more time and fun to play in front of our crowd one more time,” Kostopoulos said.
Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TLTomVenesky