The Wheeling Nailers, the ECHL affiliate of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Montreal Canadians, went on a southern road trip this past week, starting with a trip to Greenville, South Carolina to take on the Road Warriors, the New York Rangers affiliate, last Thursday night.
Wheeling went up against Buffalo Sabers 2009 sixth round draft pick Connor Knapp, who had just been assigned to Greenville from the AHL, and struggled to solve him. Wheeling trailed 2-0 off of goals from Greenville’s Marc-Olivier Vallerand in the second period and Ryan Flanigan early in the third until the deficit was cut to one, 5:27 into the final frame when Penguins 2010 sixth round draft pick Reid McNeill put Wheeling on the board with his first professional goal, but that would be as close as the Nailers got, as Greenville’s Chad Ziegler added an empty netter and the Road Warriors walked away with a 3-1 win. Knapp stopped 34 of 35 shots for Greenville, while Montreal Canadians prospect Peter Delmas made 34 saves on 36 shots for Wheeling in the loss.
Wheeling showed several positive signs in the game like holding Greenville off the board on two power play opportunities. Wheeling has at times struggled with toughness and push back this season, especially recently, but showed improvement on that front as Joe Tolles and Christiaan Minella dropped the gloves in the contest. Wheeling was unable to convert on any of their five power plays, including one with less than seven minutes to go in the third as they were trying to tie the game.
Friday night Wheeling headed to Gwinnett, Georgia to take on the Gladiators, looking for a better result. A wild first period saw Wheeling goals from Cam Fergus, Paul Crowder and Chris Barton as the Nailers took a 3-2 lead to the middle frame. In the second, Barton and Former Nailer Casey Pierro-Zabotel traded goals and the game went to the third with Wheeling leading, 4-3. Wheeling was sitting in good shape after a Minella goal early in the period gave them a 5-3 lead, but a three point period from former Nailer Joey Haddad led the Gladiators comeback and Wheeling fell 6-5.
Team captain Peter Merth and Zack Torquato both had three assists in the loss and the Nailers were three for four on the power play as offense was not by any means the problem. In the third period, Gwinnett simply wanted it more and the Nailers defense struggled to keep up with them. In the situation Wheeling is in, on the outside looking in as far as the playoff race is concerned, the Nailers need to be the desperate team that wants it more late in games.
Monday afternoon in Greenville, the Nailers were the team that wanted it more. Flanigan had the lone goal in the first period for Greenville, before Penguins 2007 second round draft pick Keven Veilleux netted a power play goal at 5:21 of the second period to even the score. Tolles again stepped up and dropped the gloves late in the middle frame and the teams headed to the third tied at one. Barton put Wheeling on top 6:25 into the third, but the Road Warriors came back with a Sean Berkstresser goal and the game headed to overtime, and eventually a shootout. Barton netted the lone goal and Delmas turned away all five Road Warriors shooters and Wheeling pulled out a 3-2 win.
Barton had a goal and an assists in regulation and netted the shootout winner for Wheeling, coming off a two goal performance in Gwinnett. Barton is streaky scorer and seems to be riding a hot streak at a good time for the Nailers, who now sit seven points out of a playoff spot.
The Nailers head back on the road this week, playing in Toledo Friday night, in Cincinnati Saturday night, in Fort Wayne Sunday, and in Elmira next Wednesday to take on their bitter rival the Jackals. The Nailers need every standings point they can get from here on out if they want to make the playoffs. The contest in Elmira next Wednesday is pivotal to the Nailers playoff hopes as the Jackals are the team Wheeling is chasing for the eighth and final playoff spot with just over a month to go in the 2012-13 regular season.