WHEELING - The Wheeling Nailers have altered their focus. No longer are they simply concerned with making the playoffs. Now it's a push for a top-four seed and home-ice advantage in the first round.
Christiaan Minella and Tyler Fernandez each scored a goal for the fifth straight game and Mike Condon came through with 24 more saves as the Nailers (38-25-6 - 82) eliminated the Evansville IceMen (29-29-11 - 69) from playoff contention with a 4-1 victory Friday night at WesBanco Arena. Wheeling's 10th victory in its last 11 games suddenly has it sixth in the Eastern Conference standings, one point behind Cincinnati, two back of fourth-place Orlando, which is in town tonight, and amazingly just four points out of third.
''I like playing home games a lot more than road games,'' Wheeling forward Denver Manderson said of the possibility of moving into the top half of the playoff bracket. ''We need to keep it going (tonight) and put forth a good effort.
Evansville’s Kevin Lynch, center, parks himself in front of Wheeling Nailers goaltender Mike Condon, right, as Nailers’ Peter Merth looks on. The Nailers beat the IceMen 4-1.
Photo by Joe Levell
''If we do that we have a really good chance to win every night, especially the way Condon and the 'D' corp is playing.''
A victory tonight, which would be a season-high sixth in a row, clinches the Nailers' third playoff berth in four seasons, and fourth in the last six.
After a scoreless first period Wheeling got the offense going 8:13 into the second as Fernandez struck. Shane Bakker skated by a defender along the right half-wall and found Fernandez in the slot, and he beat IceMen goaltender Garrett Bartus cleanly for his 13th of the season. Chaz Johnson earned the secondary assist, upping his league-high point streak to eight games.
''If I knew I would probably have been doing it all year,'' Fernandez joked of his newfound success. ''It's one of those things where you work hard and sometimes they start to bounce your way.''
A little more than six minutes later the Nailers scored again as Minella's right-wing shot flicked off Barrett's glove and in for his 11th of the season in just 20 games. Captain Dustin Stevenson earned the lone assist at 14:37.
The backbreaker though, came from Manderson. He slipped the puck around an Evansville point man at the blue line and raced the other way. Skating down the left wing, Manderson unleashed a hard wrister that whizzed past Barrett for his fourth shorthanded goal of the season - in 24 games. It was the 13th for the Nailers down a man, which is tied for tops in the ECHL.
''I think 5-on-5 D-men are trying to keep the puck out of the net, but when they're on the power play guys' mindsets go toward scoring a goal,'' Manderson said. ''If you can anticipate a pass you can usually get a 2-on-1 breakaway or a good opportunity.
''You have to take care of your own end first, because that's your job killing penalties.''
Condon finally showed a human side as the IceMen's top-ranked power-play unit struck for the only time in five opportunities, 43 seconds into the third period. Thomas Larkin snuck a point shot through Condon's 5-hole for his third of the season, snapping the Wheeling goaltender's shutout streaks at 266:37 (at home) and 166:40 (overall).
''It was a bad goal and I want it back,'' Condon said. ''It was non-important streak, but it does show how well our defense is playing.
''But we have that win over our heads.''
The response was exactly what Coach Clark Donatelli wanted to see, though.
''We came back and had two or three really good shifts and killed the momentum right away,'' he said. ''If they get another one and make it 3-2 things would have gotten hairy.
''Our guys are pretty excited and we've got to keep them under control, but they're playing good hockey. It was an emotional game.''
Mike Ratchuk provided the finishing touch when his blast from up top got through Barrett for a power-play goal with less than six minutes remaining. It was Ratchuk's 16th of the season, which leads all ECHL defensemen.
''I guess this is cliche, but it has to do with the group doing well,'' Ratchuk said. ''I've always thought when a group does well it helps individuals improve.
''We've been getting better and better each game. It's nice to produce, but it's bigger to get the win.''
Evansville0 0 1 - 1
Wheeling0 3 1 - 4
1st Period- No Scoring.Penalties-Fernandez Whl (boarding), 10:06; Corbin Evn (interference), 16:35.
2nd Period-1, Wheeling, Fernandez 13 (Bakker, Johnson), 8:13. 2, Wheeling, Minella 11 (Stevenson, MacKay), 14:37. 3, Wheeling, Manderson 10 (Harvey), 15:19 (SH). Penalties-Kuhnhackl Whl (interference on the goalkeeper), 11:05; Minella Whl (interference), 14:53; Lepine Evn (misconduct - unsportsmanlike conduct), 18:50; Ratchuk Whl (interference), 18:50.
3rd Period-4, Evansville, Larkin 3 (Aleardi, Beaulieu), 0:43 (PP). 5, Wheeling, Ratchuk 16 (Gill, Minella), 14:12 (PP). Penalties-Lepine Evn (removing the helmet, fighting - major), 9:57; McGrath Whl (removing the helmet, fighting - major), 9:57; Sakaris Evn (misconduct - unsportsmanlike conduct), 11:36; Johnson Whl (boarding), 11:36; Moon Evn (hooking), 13:27; Barron Evn (slashing ), 17:24; Johnson Whl (misconduct - unsportsmanlike conduct), 20:00.
Shots on Goal-Evansville 9-9-9-27. Wheeling 11-12-11-34.
Power-Play Opportunities-Evansville 1 / 5; Wheeling 1 / 3.
Goalies-Evansville, Bartus 8-9-3-3 (34 shots-30 saves). Wheeling, Condon 22-12-0-4 (25 shots-24 saves); Millan 2-1-0-0 (2 shots-2 saves).
Referee-Ryan Murphy (10); Linesmen-Zach Roberts (84), Ryan Daisy (64).