By SHAWN RINE
WHEELING - If this weekend's two-game set between ECHL Eastern Conference heavyweights Wheeling and Florida at WesBanco Arena is indeed a measuring stick for both as many have intimated, it appears the two teams are fairly even.
The Nailers scored with one second remaining in regulation to tie the game but Matthew Pistilli - the league's leading scorer - beat Mike Condon in the fifth round of the shootout to give the Everblades the extra point and a 5-4 victory. Florida (17-6-2 - 36), the No. 2 team in the conference, holds a six-point lead on Wheeling (13-6-4 - 30), the No. 3 squad, heading into today's 3 p.m rematch.
''It was fun, but obviously it would be better if we had won,'' said Wheeling's Zack Torquato, who banged in that late goal and assisted on two others. ''We've got to find ways to win shootouts, but to get there we showed a lot of character battling back.
''It was a playoff-style game. For sure.''
The Nailers were teetering on not recording at least a point in their second consecutive game after having a 12-game point streak snapped Thursday against Elmira, when Florida's Mike Merrifield notched his sixth of the season with less than two minutes remaining. But Carter Rowney got the puck at the left point, flung a no-look backhand into the slot where Sahir Gill and Torquato were waiting to pounce.
''Clarkie drew up a good play and I just had to go to the net and keep whacking at it,'' Torquato said. Florida goalie Trevor Cann ''stopped me first and 'Rows' made a good play getting it to the net.
''It was nice to get that bounce because I felt like we deserved to get a couple.''
Torquato's team-leading ninth of the season gave him a three-point night and moved him into third in the league. What it didn't do however, was deter the Everblades.
Florida's Brandon MacLean sneaked one past Condon in the first round of the shootout before Nailers defenseman Mike Ratchuk tied it in Round 3. Max MacKay and Rowney, who had three assists, couldn't connect.
''It's good that we tied it, but we've got to come out and win the third period. We give up a goal with 1:58 to go,'' Nailers coach Clark Donatelli lamented. ''That's a tribute to our team because they work so hard, but we've got to work smarter and stay out of the box.''
Sahir Gill broke the scoring ice 4:21 in after a nice feed from Chaz Johnson to give the Nailers a 1-0 lead. Johnson picked up the puck when MacLean fell down, circled the net and found Gill in the slot for his fifth of the season.
Former Nailer Olivier Dame-Malka knotted it with one of his trademark slapshots from the left point at 16:15, and the Blades took a 2-1 lead into the second period after rookie Kyle Bonis split the defense and took a pass from Kellan Tochkin, who had four assists, before deking Condon to the ice and putting his 12th into the net.
''They kind of set the tone in our building and we didn't like that, so we had to get some push-back and we did in the second and third,'' Torquato said.
Wheeling didn't waste any time knotting it again as Max MacKay notched his fourth of the season. Rowney dumped the puck behind the net and got it back, shuffling it over to Torquato in the right corner. Torquato found MacKay, who had enough time to settle a rolling puck before beating Cann, who stopped 24 of 28 and 4 of 5 in the shootout.
The Nailers went ahead with a Tyler Fernandez power-play goal, his fourth in eight games with the team, at 15:32. The goal was the result of another terrific individual effort on Rowney's part.
After Gill was denied on a 2-on-1 shorthanded effort after taking a feed from Torquato, the penalty bug really began to bite Wheeling. It killed off a 13-second, two-man disadvantage but wasn't as lucky a short time later when down two men. Matthew Roy deflected a Jordan Henry point shot into the cage for his 10th of the season.
''We could have played a little better in the first but we got going in the second and then made a couple mistakes in the third and they capitalized,'' Donatelli said. ''I just wish we worked a little bit smarter, but you can't fault the effort. The guys really competed.''
Condon will leave for Hamilton after today's game to replace Bulldogs goaltender Robert Mayer, who is competing in the Spengler Cup. The Nailers hope to have him back Jan. 5. ... Injured Wheeling forwards Jack MacLellan and Christiaan Minella are inching closer to returns. MacLellan skated for the first time Saturday since getting hurt, while the hope is Minella will take the ice next week.