By SHAWN RINE
WHEELING - The precipitous decline of the Wheeling Nailers is approaching the danger zone, if it hasn't already reached that point. A listless, 4-2 loss to the Cincinnati Cyclones on Thursday night at WesBanco Arena has the team clinging to seventh place in the Eastern Conference, three points from the eighth and final playoff spot.
Wheeling’s Jacob Lagace (20) tries to wrap around Cincinnati goaltender John Howe.
A matchup of two first-place teams - Wheeling in the Atlantic and Cincinnati in the North - couldn't have been more onesided. The Cyclones (21-9-2 - 44) surrendered just 22 shots, no more than nine in any period, and did pretty much as they pleased with the Nailers (15-12-6 - 36), who are 4-7-4 in their last 15 games and have not won in regulation since a 3-0 victory against Toledo on Nov. 30.
''We need to win more of the battles and that's the common trend, is we're not winning enough battles and we're not quite there. We're not as sharp as we need to be and it shows,'' said Wheeling forward Sahir Gill, who picked up an assist in the loss. ''I expect us to take this personal.
''You can't just say 'oh well, we've got another game.' You've got to remember what it feels like to be losing.''
Cincinnati got on the board first as Jonathan Hazen put home a rebound 10:05 into the contest. He added another and was originally credited with a hat trick before the third goal was awarded to linemate Trevor Lewis. Anthony Luciani scored his ninth and Dan Eves registered three assists to back goaltender Joe Howe, who made 20 saves to win his fifth game in a row and improve to 6-0-1 this season.
''The effort wasn't there,'' Nailers coach Clark Donatelli said. ''It was very dull on the bench and it was very dull in between periods.
''Come on. We're trying to be fancy and nobody is shooting the puck. I think we had five shots in the first period and eight in the second. You're not going to win hockey games like that.''
Luciani's goal came on the power play, marking the 11th time in 12 games that Wheeling has allowed a goal in such situations, after leading the league in that department for a good stretch of the season.
''It's slipped off a lot,'' Donatelli said. ''Penalty kill is inches and you've got to be detail players and you're stick's got to be on the inside.
''On their power-play goal he shoots it, he comes off and gets his own rebound. We're not doing that on our power play.
''We're going to have to find new guys who can kill because this has been going on for a while.''
The Nailers again started slow and found themselves in a 2-0 hole before Jacob Lagace notched his third of the season and first since being acquired in a trade from Orlando.
Wheeling had the momentum toward the end of the second period but immediately gave it away to start the third as Hazen netted his second of the game and seventh of the season 43 seconds into the third to make it 3-1.
''When we're playing the right way we're playing simple and we're playing tough, whether it's finishing checks or being responsible defensively,'' Gill said. ''Going into Christmas break we were playing the right way and it just seems like since we've come out, for whatever reason, we're not playing well.
''It's similar trends that are losing us games. We're not playing a full 60 minutes and you can't really afford to make mistakes. We're not putting the puck into the net and we're leaving our goalies out to dry.''
The Nailers got back to within two as defenseman Drew Schiestel, playing his first game with the team after being sent down from Hamilton, blasted a point shot past Howe from the right point.
Goaltender Mike Condon made 25 saves in a losing effort.
''We've got to get back to the system (because) too many guys are doing what they want to do and it doesn't work like that,'' Donatelli said. ''When we wanted to play we dominated the game.
''But we didn't string it together.''
Cincinnati1 1 2 - 4
Wheeling0 1 1 - 2
1st Period-1, Cincinnati, Hazen 6 (Eves, Bushbacher), 10:05. Penalties-No Penalties
2nd Period-2, Cincinnati, Luciani 9 (Crowder, Lewis), 15:06 (PP). 3, Wheeling, Lagace 3 (MacKay, Gill), 16:00. Penalties-Cianfrini Whl (charging), 13:59.
3rd Period-4, Cincinnati, Hazen 7 (Eves, Bushbacher), 0:43. 5, Cincinnati, Lewis 7 (Eves, Hazen), 9:01. 6, Wheeling, Schiestel 1 (Stevenson), 11:24. Penalties-Malouin Cin (interference), 4:18; Carrier Whl (roughing), 13:11; Luciani Cin (holding), 13:34.
Shots on Goal-Cincinnati 8-11-10-29. Wheeling 5-8-9-22.
Power Play Opportunities-Cincinnati 1-2; Wheeling 0-2.
Goalies-Cincinnati, Howe 6-0-1-0 (22 shots-20 saves). Wheeling, Condon 10-5-0-4 (29 shots-25 saves).
Referee-Pierre Lambert (20); Linesmen-Zach Roberts (84), Justin Eckman (72).