Nailers Open Eastern Semifinals

WHEELING – Beginning at 7 p.m tonight at WesBanco Arena, Round 1 of the ECHL Kelly Cup Playoffs is reduced to nothing more than fodder. The only thing that matters is the present for the Wheeling Nailers and Greenville Road Warriors, as they open Game 1 of their Best-of-7 Eastern Conference semifinal series.

The teams have recent postseason history. The Nailers beat Greenville in overtime of Game 7 in the 2011 Eastern Conference semifinals on then-rookie Chris Kushneriuk’s goal at 8:23 of overtime, but that’s no more important than this season’s opening round.

”We want to come out hard and set the tone,” Wheeling coach Clark Donatelli said. ”They throw a lot of pucks to the net and they have balanced lines.

”They come extremely hard, they pinch down the walls and are very aggressive on the forecheck. They make you earn everything and we’re really tough on Kalamazoo.”

The seventh-seeded Road Warriors upended the Wings in six games, but whether it was an upset is debatable. All four lower-seeded teams, including No. 6 Wheeling, survived the first round in the East.

At least on paper, this series seems pretty even. The two teams finished with identical records (39-27-6) during the regular season, but the Nailers earned the higher seed by virtue of the first tiebreaker, which is regulation and overtime victories. Each has balanced offensive output – Andrew Rowe leads Greenville with six playoff points (3g-3a) and Max MacKay (2g-4a) spearheads the Nailers.

Though the tandem of Jason Missiaen (3-2-0, 1.80 GAA, .946 save percentage) and Jeff Malcolm (1-0-0, 1.80, .946) have played well for the Road Warriors, nobody has been better than Wheeling goaltender Mike Condon, whose eight shutouts are second in the league. He is tied for the playoffs lead in victories (four) and shutouts (two), and paces all backstops in GAA (0.96) and SVP (.970).

”I think they are going to try to get as much traffic and chaos as they can to the front of the net,” Condon said. ”We’ve got to be good in dealing with clearing out guys and rebounds.

”I expect the games are going to be pretty intense (because) they’re a completely different team than South Carolina.”

Making it difficult for the goaltender to see incoming shots is always a priority, but that will be a tough task against Greenville. Missiaen, at 6-foot-8, is the tallest in all of hockey at his position. No matter, said Wheeling captain Dustin Stevenson.

”We’re going to have to make sure we’re going to the net hard and looking for rebounds off the pads,” the defenseman said. ”Nothing changes for us.

”Starting at home, we’re going to come out with a lot of energy and play physical.”

The Nailers could get a boost with the possible return of forward Zack Torquato. He practiced the last two days and Donatelli was hopeful that Torquato, who led the league in scoring prior to a call-up to the American Hockey League and wound up with 52 points (14g-38a), would be ready to go.

”Torqs is playing well in practice,” Donatelli said. ”Hopefully he gets cleared to play and he’ll be playing with (Denver) Manderson and (Tom) Kuhnhackl, and that’s a pretty good line.”

Special teams, as they almost always do come playoff time, will play a factor. The Nailers enter with the top-ranked penalty kill at a perfect 13-for-13, and face a Road Warriors power play that while explosive, ranks last after failing to score in 13 tries in the first round.

”Wheeling is going to be really good defensively, box out and seal posts,” Greenville coach Dean Stork said. ”They’re a nasty team back there.

”We have to make sure we’re sharp on our special teams.”