WHEELING - The opponent tonight is unlike any other the Wheeling Nailers have faced. Staring at postseason elimination in Game 6 of their Best-of-7 Kelly Cup Eastern Conference Finals with Kalamazoo at Wings Stadium, the Nailers are battling their own bodies.
Fatigue and injuries, and whether Wheeling can shake them off, may well have more to say in the outcome than anything Kalamazoo can throw the Nailers' way. The club has played 16 games in the last 35 days and when its bus pulled into its Michigan destination Monday, total hours on the road during these playoffs reached 87.
''Honestly, I can't say they've done anything different,'' defenseman Kyle Bushee said of the Wings winning back-to-back games. ''From our standpoint, we've allowed them to dictate what we want to do.
FILE PHOTO BY JOE LOVELL
Wheeling Nailers Peter Delmas (29) and Alex Grant (16) look to stave off elimination against Kory Karlander and Kalamazoo tonight.
''We really haven't played our game. We've done it in spurts, but we really haven't done it for a full 60.''
That's the challenge beginning at 7 tonight. But the Nailers, if they don't welcome challenges, have done well when facing them.
Wheeling rallied during the last month of the regular season to not just claim a playoff berth when it seemed unlikely, but climb all the way up to the No. 4 seed. The Nailers weren't expected to make it out of a first-round series with South Carolina, and certainly nobody was picking them to upend top-seeded Greenville, especially after Wheeling blew a 3-1 series lead and gave up the tying goal with 23 seconds left in regulation of Game 7.
Kalamazoo leads series, 3-2
Friday, April 30: Wheeling 3, Kalamazoo 2, OT
Saturday, May 1: Kalamazoo 4, Wheeling 1
Thursday, May 5: Wheeling 5, Kalamazoo 3
Saturday, May 7: Kalamazoo 3, Wheeling 2
Sunday: Kalamazoo 4, Wheeling 0
Tonight: Wheeling at Kalamazoo, 7 p.m.
x-Wednesday: Wheeling at Kalamazoo, 7 p.m.
This group has gotten up off the mat and answered the bell in every round, refusing to fall victim to a knockout blow.
''That's just it. We've persevered all year,'' Coach Stan Drulia said. ''Why would we want it any different now?
''We've got to throw everything at them. They've played just as many games, maybe one or two less than us.
''We're a banged-up group.''
It's times like these when it becomes easier to locate the differences between regular citizens and pro athletes - it's a heightened mental approach that sets the two apart. Sporting history is filled with stories of our favorite teams defying the odds.
If the Nailers can force their bodies to do things not even they believed possible, this series will go to a Game 7.
''There's no time to sulk, no time to get all over each other and be negative,'' rookie Wheeling forward Brandon DeFazio said. ''I think we've got a positive group in there - a resilient group.
''I know I believe in every single guy in there, and they all believe in me.
''It's the playoffs. We're a group that will get some rest and come back a hundred times better. I know that.
There's a couple of things, at least on paper, that would seem to come out in Wheeling's favor. The Nailers are 5-3 in the playoffs on the road, and of those eight games, six have been decided by one goal. The club's record in one-goal games this postseason is 8-2.
''At times it's weird, because when you're at home you've got other distractions - you've got errands to run, guys have wives and girlfriends here, parents coming to town you have to worry about, and getting tickets for people,'' Bushee said. ''On the road, it's just the boys and hockey. You're in the hotel, there's no distractions. Sometimes it's good to get away.
''We seem to play some simpler hockey, maybe a little bit smarter.
''So you know what? Yeah, maybe it's best for us to go on the road and get away from the distractions and just focus on hockey 24/7.''
There's certainly no quit in this group, and it has shown that time and again this season. There's a distinct feeling within the Nailers locker room that, not only will they win tonight, but they're also going to take Game 7 and advance to the Kelly Cup Finals, which begin Saturday night in Alaska.
Wheeling boarded the bus at 9 on Monday morning and ''we play (tonight) and Wednesday, and we've got flights booked for Thursday,'' Drulia said.
If they can only get their bodies to cooperate.
Shawn Rine can be reached via e-mail at Rine@theintelligencer.net