Wheeling has legit shot at championship

WHEELING – One doesn’t have to go back too far into the archives to find a team that compares favorably to the one the Wheeling Nailers will take into North Charleston Coliseum for tonight’s 7:05 p.m. Best-of-7 Kelly Cup Eastern Conference Quarterfinal opener against South Carolina. The year was 2010 and the Coach Stan Drulia-led Nailers defied all odds and made it to the conference finals before succumbing to injury, fatigue, and ultimately the Kalamazoo Wings.

Current Wheeling forward Christiaan Minella was on that team and said he can see some similarities.

”We come to work every day, but we’re loose and like to have fun,” Minella said. ”It’s a younger team than it was a couple years ago.

”Hopefully we can have the same success or even a little better this year.”

A smart man wouldn’t bet against them. The Nailers play a style of hockey that’s a nightmare of a matchup for any club in the Eastern Conference. There’s a lot of skill to be had elsewhere, but there aren’t many – if any – teams out there who are going to want to go hit-for-hit with Wheeling during the course of a seven-game series.

Don’t take my word for it, but listen to forward Chaz Johnson.

”We get to the red line, get it in and wear ‘D’ down,” he said. ”I was talking to a buddy of mine, (Orlando goaltender) Max Clermont, and he was telling me ‘you guys hit a lot. Not just little, it’s just hit, hit, hit … and hard.’

”Our ‘D’ corp has played really hard. Everybody back there gets physical.”

If you only see the Nailers occasionally, I would think it’s difficult to prepare not only your body, but also your mind for the amount of physicality that is about to take place.

”We’ve got a lot of different attributes,” defenseman Peter Merth said. ”We’ve got some big, physical players and that bodes well for us down the stretch.”

It doesn’t bode well for the opposition, particularly South Carolina. The Stingrays aren’t all that deep up front, are relegated to their third and fourth goalies and are not accustomed to having to fend off a check at every turn.

Merth, who was also on that 2010 team, says that physical play is a common thread between the two Wheeling clubs.

”That year too we weren’t solidified of a playoff spot until late in the year,” he said. ”Same thing here, we went on a run at the end and that’s all shaping up the way it was four years ago.

”We’ve got a good group – a good mix of young and a few more experienced guys, which is what we had then.”

This Wheeling team is unlike any I have been around in my seven-plus seasons of covering hockey. I believe strongly it has a legitimate chance, barring significant injury, to make a run at that whole thing.

That said, it’s generally thought that a team with high hopes of advancing deep into hockey’s postseason must at some point along the journey enjoy a quick, less-than-taxing series. It appears as though the Nailers are getting that right out of the gate against a South Carolina team that has been ravaged by injuries during the latter part of the season.

Wheeling in five.

Shawn Rine can be reached via email at: srine@theintelligencer.net.