If the Augusta Lynx find a way to make the ECHL playoffs for a fourth straight year, don't be surprised if Zac Bierk carries them on his shoulders to a long postseason run.
Bierk capped off another important weekend with another solid performance against one of the league's hottest teams, making 33 saves for the Lynx in a 3-1 victory Sunday over the Charlotte Checkers.
"We're all playing with more confidence, and we feed off each other in these kinds of situations," said Bierk, who played through considerable discomfort after pulling a groin muscle on Saturday. "I just try and do what I can to help the team. I know goaltending is a big part of any hockey team, and I'm just trying to stay in a groove."
Since the all-star break, few goalies have been groovier. Bierk is 6-2-1 with a 1.96 goals-against average and .939 save percentage in his past 10 games. Overall, the former NHL goalie is 6-6-1 with a 2.62 GAA and .916 save percentage in 14 contests.
"When you've got a guy like that in net playing as well as he is right now, the team plays with more confidence," said defenseman Joe Vandermeer, who scored his first goal with the Lynx since coming over in the Trevor Gillies trade Feb. 3, giving Augusta a 1-0 lead 2:06 into the game.
"A hot goaltender can go a long way in the playoffs. All we have to do now is make it there."
Following two solid wins this weekend over South Carolina and Charlotte, that notion suddenly seems more realistic. The Checkers (31-16-9), second in the Northeast Division behind Trenton, had won four in a row and 10 of its past 12 coming in.
The Lynx (26-21-8) got goals from Vandermeer, Tyson Holly and Wes Swinson, providing Bierk ample support to win for the sixth time in eight games.
Sunday's win moved them within four points of Columbia for fifth place in the Southeast Division with one game in hand. South Carolina, though, was no help to their cause Sunday, as the sixth-place Stingrays defeated Greenville 4-2. The top five teams in the division make the playoffs.
"We're not gaining a lot on everyone, but we're certainly not slipping," Lynx coach Jim Burton said. "We're chipping away at these teams. Tonight was huge for us, because (Charlotte's) a good hockey team. They're a very explosive team, and we shut them down pretty good and stuck to our plan."
Part of the plan was to get the puck deep in Charlotte's zone, sustain a good forecheck and create chances off turnovers. For the most part, it was mission accomplished.
"We played a disciplined game and we knew we had to win the one-on-one battles on the wall and get the puck continuously deep to create chances," Burton said. "I was very pleased with how the guys stuck to that game plan."
The defense also supported Bierk, keeping the bulk of Charlotte's 34 shots to the perimeter while doing a solid job clearing the front of the net and minimizing second chances. Kevin Caulfield's power-play goal at 15:48 of the first period was the only dent the Checkers could make.
Bierk also came up huge in the third period. He robbed Charlotte's Dave Duerden on a partial breakaway midway through the third, then made an acrobatic glove save on a laser from the point by Andrew Taylor with three minutes left.
"They had some good chances, but they weren't getting a lot of odd-man situations," Bierk said. "The guys helped me out a lot tonight."
NOTES: Rookie Patrick Yetman was called up by Springfield of the American Hockey League after the game. Burton said the all-star forward will sign a 25-game contract with the Phoenix Coyotes' top farm club, but could return to Augusta after next weekend. "We probably won't have him next weekend, but after that, I'm not sure. I'm happy for him. He deserves a shot up there." Burton will be looking to pick up another forward, either via free-agent signing or trade before next weekend's games. The ECHL trade deadline is Wednesday. ... With a bid of $707, Joseph Korwin won the silent auction of a Nashville Predators autographed jersey. The auction was set up by Lynx goalie Cris Classen, with proceeds going to a local shelter for abused children.
Lynx 3, Checkers 1
Star of the game: Goalie Zac Bierk recorded 33 saves to improve his record to 6-6-1.
Key play: With the game tied at 1, Tyson Holly corralled a rebound of a shot from center ice and flipped it past Checkers goalie Jason Labarbera for the go-ahead goal at 4:33 of the second period.
Plus: Defenseman Wes Swinson made a great play to keep a bad Charlotte clear in the zone, then made a nice move around a defender and threw in a wrist shot from the point that deflected off Checkers' defenseman Nicholas Bilotto and in the net for his fifth goal of the year.
Up next: The Lynx are off until Friday, when they open a two-game road swing against the Mobile Mysticks.