WHEELING - Is this a big weekend for the Wheeling Nailers?
In truth they all are, but even more so when you're scuffling along at a 2-9-3 clip that has taken the Nailers (15-14-6 - 36) from an eight-point division lead and dropped them into 10th in the Eastern Conference, three points of the eighth and final playoff spot.
So, yeah, two at red-hot Greenville (tonight and Saturday), which holds eighth, and Monday at Gwinnett may go a long way in determining the fate of Wheeling's season.
"When you're in this mess, you've got to work for the breaks,'' Wheeling coach Clark Donatelli said Thursday from Greenville. ''We're definitely pressing.
''Yeah, this is a real big trip."
The absolute last thing a hockey player wants to hear is that he is easy to play against. The Nailers, as a whole, have been just that during this lengthy skid. Opposing teams are scoring at will around Wheeling goaltender Mike Condon, and the Nailers aren't getting many goals that way on the other end.
When a coach refers to being hard to play against, he wants an attacking demeanor when the other team has the puck in the offensive zone. That means being active with your sticks and getting mean and nasty if the situation calls for it. In other words, find a way to get the job done at any cost.
The Wheeling coaching staff doesn't have to get that point across to defenseman Dustin Stevenson, who Thursday was named the team's captain.
''He's tough and he's a good leader,'' Donatelli said about Stevenson, who in 21 games with Wheeling has six assists, 58 penalty minutes and is a plus-6.
Help on the Way
Defensemen Matt Grassi (Hamilton) and Barry Goers (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton) are back, providing the team's back end with some needed stability. Both are underrated players who consistently make the simple, correct play.
''(Goers) is definitely going to come down with leadership,'' Donatelli said. ''I think we've got 13 guys in the lineup that have never been in this situation at this level.
''We can't take stupid penalties, which has started to creep in lately.
''Grassi does a lot of little things that don't show up in the box score.''
In addition, goaltender Peter Mannino practiced with the team Wednesday and went to Greenville on the team bus. Under contract to the Baby Penguins, he had previously refused to report to Wheeling and was thought to be contemplating retirement.
''He has come here with a great attitude and the guys all really like him,'' Donatelli said. ''He's seen a lot and been through some hard and bad times, so his leadership is going to help.
''But it all comes down to we have to get some goals, and we have to find a way to get 35 shots and make it hard on their goaltender.''
To make room on the roster, Wheeling released goaltender Brooks Ostergard and placed defenseman Myles Harvey on reserve.
Donatelli said he believes the club will come out with desperation tonight, and that they are treating this string as playoff-type games.
On the injury front, Christiaan Minella is day-to-day with a nagging injury but hopes to ramp up his regime soon. Forward Scott Zurevinski was placed on IR and will miss at least a month.
Shawn Rine can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org