By SHAWN RINE
WHEELING - The Wheeling Nailers completed somewhat of a miracle comeback last Friday in Elmira, rallying from a 4-0 deficit after one to beat the Jackals. It was lauded as a gutsy performance, but in reality it only masked a near season-long issue of starting slowly.
Wheeling (28-23-6 -62) allowed visiting Cincinnati to build a 6-0 lead Sunday at WesBanco Arena, but his time a furious rally came up short.
Byron Froese completed a hat trick by stuffing the puck into an empty net with four seconds remaining as the Cyclones (32-20-3 - 67) took a 7-5 victory and a big two points.
"That's happened quite a few times here recently and that has been talked about in the locker room," said Nailers forward Carter Rowney, who had a career-high four assists. "Maybe some people think on a Sunday against a team playing 3-in-3 on the road it's going to be easy, but it doesn't work that way.
"Everyone knows how much those two points meant and I think it hurts more when you fought so hard in the second and third periods, but you have to be ready from the get-go."
The loss, combined with a xxxxx (still playing) loss puts the Nailers back on the outside looking in on he Eastern Conference playoff race.
Rookie goaltender Eric Hartzell continued to struggle, allowing the six goals on just 13 shots, though many of those would be hard to pin on the former Hobey Baker Award finalist. Wheeling lacked the sort of energy expected of a team fighting for its postseason life.
"Nobody likes to give up six goals - I don't think that has happened to me in the last five years," Hartzell said. "I'm struggling right now but hopefully in two years I can look back on this and say it was a big point in my career.
"I'm learning what it's like to struggle as a pro and I am learning what it is like to give up six goals. My confidence is fine. I'll get out of this."
His teammates nearly got out of a huge hole ... again.
Mike Ratchuk made it 6-2 with his 12th and 13th goals of the season - tops among ECHL defensemen - wih a pair of slapshots, one on the power play, from nearly identical spots inside the left circle.
Wheeling cut it to 6-3 after two periods as Christian Minella scored his fourth, and first of two, from right in front of Cyclones goaltender and former Nailer Scott Darling.
A little less than halfway through the third it became a two-goal game as Minella, racing down the right wing, rang a shot off the post and in for a power-play goal. Captain Dustin Stevenson then cut it to 6-5 as his wrist shot through traffic from the top of the left circlr beat Darling.
Ratchuk nearly completed his own hat trick when he broke into thr slot and unleashed a backhander that Darling had a hard time with. However, with Hartzell on he bench in favor of the extra attacker, Dan Eves (four assists) got the puck ahead to Josh Shalla who got a step on Zack Torquato racing into the offensive zone. Shalla feathered a pass to Froese charging down the right side and his backhand barely made its way into the cage over a sliding Torquato.
"We weren't ready to play again and you can't do that against teams like an Elmira or a Reading or Cincinnati," Nailers coach Clark Donatelli said. "You could say we gave up some bad goals, but we didn't help (Hartzell out at all).
"We've got to be hard on their skill players and we weren't. We gave them way too much time and space."
Anthony Luciani (22, 23) and Jonathan Hazen (17, 18) had two goals each for Cincinnati.