Coming into Friday night’s out of conference showdown with the West’s Utah Grizzlies, the Wheeling Nailers had gone without a win in their last three games. One thing all of those games had in common was that the Nailers went to the third period of each in winnable positions, but lost the third period of each and inevitably the games. With the teams in a 2-2 deadlock headed to the third period, the final frame would again be what decided it and the Nailers found a way to win the period and the game, 5-4.
“We had to work for every inch that we got tonight,” Nailers coach Jeff Christian said. “We talked about it.
“It’s a mental toughness, it’s a will to play 60 minutes, and it’s something you have to learn. Two of those three games that we lost we had leads going to the third, the other one was tied at the halfway point.
“We made a little adjustment. As a coach you think, ‘what am I missing here?’ We made an adjustment to the system and it paid off.”
Cody Wydo netted a big goal, which he usually does when his team needs one, with 1:17 left on the clock and it turned out to be the game winner, as Christian Hilbrich found him behind the Grizzlies defense and he put a forehand-backhand move on rookie Utah netminder Ryan McKay (30 saves) for his seventh of the season.
“That’s what we call him, big goal Cody Wydo, the tripple overtime hero,” Christian said, making reference to a game winner Wydo scored during last season’s playoff run. “The thing about Cody is when he gets hot, he’s hot.
“He had two goals last game. The guy is a goal scorer, he’s working on other aspects of his game, he’s trying to become a complete player … but the one aspect of his game that separates him from a lot of players is his ability to finish.”
Kyle Flemington, who also had a first period fight in what was a scrappier affair than what Wheeling has had this season, gave the Nailers their first lead of the contest 1:13 into the third to break the 2-2 tie, putting home a perfect back-door feed from Jordan Kwas.
“It was a good night,” Flemington said. “The goal was just a good play by Jordan Kwas and I was lucky enough to bury it.
“This was a big game for sure. It wasn’t pretty but we grinded it out for two points.”
Utah’s Mathieu Aubin answered just over three minutes later, but Derek Army, who tied the game in the second period, was able to put Wheeling back on top scoring on a redirect of a Brett Stern point shot from right on top of McKay just past the midway point of the third, giving him two on the night – both scored from right in tight – and now seven on the campaign.
“It was a good game and big win to get us back (in the win column),” Army said. “Just go to the net, I play with some good players and got some good bounces and I have to be there to finish.
“It’s very different (seeing a Western Conference team). You don’t know anything about them so it’s like a feeling out process to start, like the playoffs almost.”
Wydo’s goal would make it 5-3, but Utah’s Tim Daly would score an extra attacker goal to make things interesting 34.3 seconds to go, making Doug Carr (34 saves) and company have to hang on for dear life at the end to seal the win.
Wheeling gave themselves an uphill climb, getting down 2-0 in the first as Erik Higby and Colin Martin each netted goals for Utah in the opening period for a 2-0 visitors lead after one, while the aforementioned Flemington and Garrett Meurs both had fighting majors for the Nailers marking the first time this season they’ve had more than one in a game.
“We got down two goals early and it got ugly,” Christian said. “I was proud of our guys for sticking together and standing up for themselves.
“That’s what Nailers hockey looks like, I’m not anti-fighting, I’m anti-dumb penalty and there’s a difference. I want our guys to stick up for each other, and if they get challenged, especially at home, I want them to stick up for themselves.
“I understand what it’s looked like in the past, but that’s what hockey looks like now. It’s not a stage, it’s not the WWF, but when in the heat of the battle we fight and that’s what we did tonight and I was proud of our guys for that.”
The second period belonged to the Nailers, though, as Kevin Schulze finished a rush he started by firing his third of the season top shelf at the 12:01 mark, then after a few good chances that didn’t go, Army provided the equalizer with 1:36 to go, banging home a Schulze rebound to set up the dramatic third period.
“When things are good they go well and the puck goes in,” Schulze, who is top-5 in both defenseman and rookie scoring, said. “After those last three games it was really big that we battled back.”
The same teams go head to head again tonight at 7:05 inside of WesBanco Arena.
“We’ve got to do the same thing (to beat them aagin),” he said. “Work hard and get bodies and pucks to the net.”