WHEELING - The Wheeling Nailers are no longer going to sneak up on teams, least of all Greenville. The sixth-seeded Nailers swept No. 3 South Carolina in the first round and the result was met with a few raised eyebrows around the league.
Road Warriors coach Dean Stork knows better. If the Nailers thought they were disrespected by the opponent in Round 1, Greenville seems bent on making up for it.
''We're going to try to keep up with Wheeling,'' Stork said following his team's optional skate Thursday at WesBanco Arena, site of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinal at 7 on Saturday night. ''That's a good hockey club over there and we've got to make sure we're ready to play and be as physical as them.
''They've got a lot of speed with (Tom) Kuhnhackl, (Denver) Manderson, (Sahir) Gill and the list goes on. We're going to try to keep our feet moving and we've got to manage the puck.''
All true. Maybe a little posturing by a veteran coach, but there's nothing wrong with that.
No. 7 Greenville doesn't have to take a back seat to anyone. It is a skilled, tough team that upset No. 2-seeded Kalamazoo in six games to reach this point.
Eastern Conference Semifinal
Wheeling Nailers vs. Greenville Road Warriors
- Sat. at Wheeling, 7 p.m.
- Sun. at Wheeling, 6 p.m.
- Tue. at Greenville, 7 p.m.
- Thu. at Greenville, 7 p.m.
- Fri. May 9 at Greenville, 7 p.m. (if necessary)
- Mon. May 12 at Wheeling, 7 p.m. (if necessary)
- Wed. May 14 at Wheeling, 7 p.m. (if necessary)
In fact, Wheeling coach Clark Donatelli's description of the Road Warriors sounded as though he was talking about his own team.
''They finish all their checks and are really hard to play against. Watching the tape against Kalamazoo they are real good down low and are hard on the puck,'' Donatelli said. ''No turnovers in the neutral zone because they really come and are aggressive.
''Another thing they do extremely well is they go to the net extremely hard, so we're going to have to protect the house. Their middle-lane drive, they go so hard.''
If that sounds familiar, it should. Nearly a week later, South Carolina still doesn't know what hit it.
Playing the first two games down south, an always physical Wheeling team ramped it up another notch in that regard, and the Stingrays really didn't have much in the way of a push-back. That's not going to be the case with the Road Warriors, who have some big, aggressive individuals, led by Emerson Clark, who had 13 fights during the regular season, including two with Nailers enforcer Pat McGrath.
''We obviously try to play our brand of hockey, which is physical. We don't want to play their end-to-end game,'' Nailers captain and defenseman Dustin Stevenson said. ''We're going to come out with a lot of energy and play physical.
''We've been doing a little bit of video on them and trying to see what they do, but we're not sure what they're going to do against us. We're focused on how we need to play and we're not worried about what they're going to do.''
Not much different from the first round, or the rest of the season for that matter.
The bottom line is, this series and any other in the game of hockey is going to be decided by 1-on-1 battles and who wins more of those. That being said, the physical aspect cannot be overlooked.
Wheeling bullied South Carolina from the start and you could see the effect that had as the series shifted back to WesBanco Arena. It's going to be hard to duplicate that type of success against what appears to be a mentally tough Greenville group, but in the end it will take its toll.
Nailers in 6.
Shawn Rine can be reached via email at: email@example.com