Nailers’ Quest For Kelly Cup Begins

WHEELING – The Wheeling Nailers head to the North Charleston Coliseum to begin what they hope is a roughly two-month-long march to the franchise’s first Kelly Cup Championship. Game 1 of their Best-of-7 Eastern Conference quarterfinal with the third-seeded South Carolina Stingrays is scheduled for a 7:05 start tonight.

It’s the culmination of a season’s worth of hard work for the sixth-seeded Nailers, who enter the postseason having won 7 of 10.

”I feel like we’ve been playing amazing hockey lately and we don’t feel like we’re a sixth seed,” Nailers captain and defenseman Dustin Stevenson said. ”We’re going in there playing like we’re the favorites to win it.

”You obviously want to win one on the road and then we’ve got three at home.

”We’re excited.”

At least on paper it’s easy to see how one could argue Wheeling is indeed the favorite. The Stingrays will be without all-world goalie Jeff Jakaitis as well as forward and leading scorer Peter Boyd, as neither made the playoff roster.

To a man, however, the Nailers are more concerned with themselves than anything South Carolina will throw at them. Wheeling plays a punishing brand of hockey, but when it veers from that type of game, as evidence last Friday’s 6-3 loss to Cincinnati, things do not turn out well.

”That’s exactly what we talk about. If we don’t play our game plan and we try to do things we’re not good at and try to do things their way, that’s what happens,” Coach Clark Donatelli said. ”Then we come out the next night and play the way we want to play, and it’s such a difference (5-0 Wheeling shutout).

”It’s more of a mindset than anything else. We all know.”

The Nailers will turn to rookie goaltender Mike Condon, who in addition to going 23-12-4 with a 2.18 goals-against average and .931 save percentage, set a franchise record with six shutouts. He’s been rock-solid down the stretch, drawing rave reviews from everyone in the Wheeling locker room.

”I think we’ve been the best team in the ECHL the last 10 or 15 games,” Condon said. ”We’ve been playing some good hockey, it’s just a matter of if we can keep it going.

”The competition is going to be a lot tighter, a lot stiffer, and teams are going to start toughening up.”

The Stingrays, under ECHL Coach of the Year Spencer Carberry, prefer an up-tempo style of play, something the Nailers have no interest in being a part of at this, or any, time of the season. South Carolina is led by forwards Dale Mitchell (19g-26a), Wayne Simpson (22g-19a) and Patrick Gaul (12g-19a), who have 45, 41 and 31 points, respectively. The addition of veteran forward Chad Owens, is a significant one.

The likely starting goaltender will be Allen York, who split this season between Evansville (3-3-0, 4.12, .863) and South Carolina (8-4-1, 2.29, .922).

Defensively, the Stingrays received a huge boost with the return of Kevin Quick to a unit that allowed the second-fewest goals in the league during the regular season. He only played 10 games, but was a plus-10.

”We only played them once this year, but we know they’re going to be tough,” forward Christiaan Minella said. ”They put together a pretty good run at the beginning of the year.

”We have confidence that we can be successful in the playoffs as long as we play our game and keep to the system.”

”Play our game” was spoken extensively following the team’s final practice at WesBanco Arena. There appears to be a legitimate belief that if the Nailers stick to that plan, things will turn out in their favor.

”We’ve been playing a physical brand of hockey all year and we’ve got to keep that going in the playoffs,” Stevenson said. “To play a team potentially seven games in a row, those bumps and bruises add up. So we’re going to make sure we’re playing a physical game and get on them from Game 1.”

Fellow defenseman Peter Merth concurred.

”You have the systems in place that will give you the best chance,” Merth said. ”It’s the team that’s going to come in and possess the puck and who is going to wear each other down quicker (that is going to win).

”You can’t look too far ahead. South Carolina is our opponent and we’re all excited to get this series under way.”

One area the Stingrays hold a slight advantage heading into the series, is in special-teams play. South Carolina finished fifth on the power play (17.4) and 10th on the penalty kill (84.6), compared to 10th (16.3) and 13th (84.5) for Wheeling. South Carolina spent the third-fewest minutes in the penalty box (885), while the Nailers had the fifth-most (1,219).

The importance of those units is not lost on Donatelli.

”It’s all going to be elevated. Guys are going to be blocking shots that normally don’t block them,” the coach said. ”The PK has been pretty good over the last week or so.

”Watching film on South Carolina, they aren’t really showing us anything that we don’t know. It’s going to come down to executing, one-touch passes and the willingness to win 1-on-1 battles.”