System Tweak Pays Off for Nailers

WHEELING – To a man, the Wheeling Nailers insist they haven’t changed much in terms of their systems. In fact, they would call it more of a tweak.

The results say it’s paying dividends.

Since going to a more up-tempo, attacking style of play, the Nailers (6-8-3 – 15) have reeled off three victories in their last four games, allowing 1.5 goals and 23.5 shots a night.

”Now that we kind of see the system working and we changed a little bit – a more aggressive style – think that fits our game,” forward Peter Lenes said. ”It’s getting used to that, and I think letting the guys with speed go is something (the coaching staff) recognized and we’re now doing more of there.

”That’s a positive.”

Wheeling has collected six of a possible eight points during the streak to crawl out of an early hole in the Atlantic Division standings.

Wheeling still trails first-place Reading by 12 points, but the Nailers have at least one game in hand on every team in the Eastern Conference.

Understandably the confidence has picked up team-wide. Practices are being contested at a quicker pace and players are carrying a little bit of a swagger.

”Absolutely, because they’re having success,” Coach Clark Donatelli said. ”We tell them to trust the system and believe in it and believe in each other.

”When there’s a breakdown they will cover, but they have to truly believe in what they are doing out there. The guys are in the shot lanes and are blocking a lot of shots. They’re just doing what they have to do right now.”

The best defense right now, it seems, is a good offense. Wheeling is spending more time in the offensive zone, which in turn makes life easier for goaltender Scott Darling who has only given up six goals during this four-game run.

”We want to keep it in their zone as long as we can. I think that’s ideal,” defenseman Paul Cianfrini said. ”I think it’s just being more aggressive, trying to create more opportunities. A lot of getting the puck in, holding it for five seconds and then going back down the ice is a lot of skating.”

The system, which focuses on puck possession, is a high risk-reward scenario according to Donatelli. He and assistant coach Zach Sonnefeld are asking more of their defensemen, and that includes heavily pinching down the boards deep in the offensive zone. It calls for forwards to rotate to the back end as the last line of defense.

”It’s kind of risky because of how offensive we are, that we can give up some 2-on-1s and 3-on-2s like we did in Elmira,” the coach said of a 4-2 victory. ”We go back and forth to other systems that we play, but the system that has been really working for us lately has been really offensive.

”We’ll be changing our forechecking and our neutral zone systems throughout the game, going back and forth. It seems to be working and the guys are buying into it.”

The forwards are also being more aggressive in the neutral zone, forcing turnovers at a rapid rate and making the opposition dump the puck in and chase. For guys like Cianfrini, it’s a fun way to play.

”It feels nice to step up in the play a little bit more and to try to create some offense,” he said. ”But I like coming down the wall and I have gotten better at it over the years.”