WHEELING - From Dec. 12 to Jan. 18 the Wheeling Nailers seemed to hit a wall, going 3-10-3 for total of nine points in 16 games. It was at that point veteran forward Chaz Johnson let it be known the team would come out of the funk.
Fast forward almost three months and his words have proven to be true. With South Carolina's 3-2 victory against Florida on Sunday, the Nailers clinched their third playoff berth in four seasons, and their fourth in the last six.
''At the beginning of the year we were preaching for fans not to panic,'' Johnson said Sunday. ''We had a lot of new players and no one knew each other or how guys played.
''We have been through a lot this year. Being down 4-0 to Elmira and coming back to win, and then being down 6-0 to Cincinnati and we almost won.
''This is a non-quit type of team.''
That way of thinking could serve Wheeling well as it enters the 'second season.' The opponent - things are so tightly packed in the Eastern Conference that it could still be Cincinnati, Greenville, Kalamazoo, Orlando, Reading, or South Carolina - and starting date of the quarterfinals will be announced once the field is set, but the Nailers are locked into beginning on the road and will play Games 3, 4 and 5, if necessary, of the opening round April 23, 25 and 26 at WesBanco Arena.
''Whoever we play is going to be a good team,'' Coach Clark Donatelli said. ''We are all very happy we're in and we're looking forward to it.
''We still have to keep playing.''
The pressure will be off though, when Wheeling heads to Cincinnati to close out the regular season with games Friday and Saturday night. Position will be on the line however, as only top-seeded Reading is locked in. The Nailers would have preferred to clinch Saturday night at home against Orlando, but knowing a victory is not necessary is a welcome feeling.
''I'd be lying if I told you it wasn't,'' Donatelli said with a laugh. ''Now we play it out and then go play the hand that we're dealt.''
The playoffs won't begin until the weekend of April 18, which is nearly a full week off between games. In the case of the Nailers, given their injury situation, that's a good thing.
''The (Zack) Torquatos of the world, more rest is better. (Dustin) Stevenson is day-to-day,'' Donatelli said. ''We're going to need everybody going down the stretch.''
The fact the Nailers will have to start on the road won't faze them, Johnson said, pointing to their 17-14-3 record away from home.
''We're a tough matchup for anybody,'' Johnson said. "We're the type of team that it doesn't matter where we play, whether it's Consol (Energy Center) or Wheeling Park.
''We have a physical team that can put the puck in the net, has a great defensive unit, experience on the back end, and a goalie like (Mike) Condon who has ice in his veins.
''We have a team to go all the way.''