NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. - Call it the goal that almost never happened.
Tom Kuhnhackl took a pass from Jake Areshenko, walked into the left circle and wristed his first career postseason goal into the top-right corner of South Carolina goaltender Pheonix Copley net at 9:53 of overtime Saturday night, giving Wheeling a 3-2 victory and a 2-0 lead in the team's Best-of-7 Eastern Conference quarterfinal at the North Charleston Coliseum.
Games 3, 4 and 5 (if necessary) will be played Wednesday, Friday and Saturday night's at WesBanco Arena - all at 7 p.m.
With about four minutes remaining in the intermission between the end of regulation and overtime, Kuhnhackl realized he had a broken skate blade. Coach Clark Donatelli asked Billy Higgins if he could get it fixed in time, and the Wheeling equipment manager went to work.
''I took my time coming out and got to the bench with about 25 seconds left," Donatelli recalled. ''(Kuhnhackl) missed that first shift and had a chance immediately as soon as he came back.
"So the assist on that goal goes to Billy Higgins."
Knowing the had to turn it up a notch after Friday night's 3-0 loss in Game 1, South Carolina outshot Wheeling 16-6 in the first period and scored the lone goal as Luka Vidmar lifted a wrist shot past Nailers goaltender Mike Condon, whose shutout streak was stopped at 154.20.
"They came right at us and we weathered the storm," Donatelli said. "I thought we had a good first four or five shifts in the game and then we ran into some penalty trouble.
"We regrouped in the second."
The Nailers knotted the game at 3:16 of the second as Denver Manderson. Sahir Gill won a faceoff on the power play to Max MacKay, who immediately hooked up with Manderson for a slap shot which was powered through from high in the zone. Gill's assist extended his point streak (regular season and playoffs) to 12 games.
The Rays went back ahead 13 seconds later as Jack Downing came out from behind the net, sneaking a shot in from the bottom of the left circle.
"It's going to happen because Condo has been so good for so long," Donatelli said.
That's the way it remained until the 11:09 mark of the the third period, again on the power play. Donatelli called a timeout to get the lineup he wanted out rested.
Manderson shot one from the left side that Copely couldn't handle and Chaz Johnson was there to pounce on a rebound, dragging it to his forehand to tuck the puck inside the post for his second of the postseason, and 26th of his career.
"He was humming these last two games,'' Donatelli said of Johnson. "He knows what the playoffs are all about.
"He's a great team guy and he's been out there paying the price with his body."
Condon earned his second victory with 36 saves on 38 shots. Copely turned aside 37 of 40.
Now it's back to Wheeling, where the Nailers want to close the series out as soon as possible. The Stingrays have to win four of the final five to advance, including three straight at WesBanco Arena.
"We're just glad to be coming home and the mood is great," Donatelli said. "But South Carolina isn't going to lay down and die.
"We have to be ready to play in that first period Wednesday."
He's a pro. He knows what the playoffs are all about. Great team guy. Paying the price.
Wheeling0 1 1 1 - 3
South Carolina1 1 0 0 - 2
1st Period-1, South Carolina, Vidmar 1 (Simpson, Gongalsky), 15:03. Penalties-Larson Sc (slashing ), 1:13; Merth Whl (slashing ), 6:24; McGrath Whl (elbowing, fighting - major), 9:00; Spinell Sc (fighting - major), 9:00; Merth Whl (roughing), 17:59.
2nd Period-2, Wheeling, Manderson 1 (MacKay, Gill), 3:16 (PP). 3, South Carolina, Downing 1 (Larson, Owens), 3:29. Penalties-Vigier Sc (holding), 3:12; Cianfrini Whl (fighting - major), 9:29; King Sc (fighting - major), 9:29; served by Oakley Sc (bench - too many men), 18:03.
3rd Period-4, Wheeling, Johnson 2 (Manderson, Ratchuk), 8:01 (PP). Penalties-Stevenson Whl (roughing), 5:56; Gongalsky Sc (roughing), 5:56; Vidmar Sc (slashing ), 6:56; Gongalsky Sc (high-sticking), 17:56.
OT Period-5, Wheeling, Kuhnhackl 1 (Areshenko), 9:53. Penalties-Owens Sc (delay of game), 5:30.
Shots on Goal-Wheeling 9-16-9-5-39. South Carolina 17-6-8-7-38.
Power-Play Opportunities-Wheeling 2-6; South Carolina 0-3.
Goalies-Wheeling, Condon 2-0-0-0 (38 shots-36 saves). South Carolina, Copley 0-0-1-0 (39 shots-36 saves).
Referee-Andrew Wilk (24); Linesmen-Terry Wicklum (98), Jesse Pletsch (54).