Sunday afternoon at WesBanco Arena the Wheeling Nailers season was on the line, and they were not able to get the job done, as division rival and the team Wheeling was chasing, the Reading Royals, came in and took a 5-3 victory to clinch their spot and put an end to the Nailers playoff aspirations after Wheeling had led 3-2 and the game had been 3-3 going to the third period.
“It was 3-3 going to the third, the season is on the line, and they win the third period,” Nailers coach Jeff Christian said. “They were playing 3-in-3 and traveled.
“You look at how Reading won that game, they just kept getting pucks deep, chip and charge, grind it out, and I’m asking our guys to do the same thing and we’re turning pucks over, we’re staying out for extended shifts, becuase we all want to do it ourselves.
“I don’t think it was like we quit, the effort was fine, it was just execution.”
Wheeling put up three straight after the Royals jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead, and things looked promising for the Nailers, but the cagey Royals fought back and regained the lead and would not give it up again.
“That’s the difference between a team full of young guys and a team full of veterans. The veterans know how to win. That’s the biggest lesson for me, I’ve got to get players with experience (next year) that can help lead the charge.”
Wheeling had been a long shot to get in after dropping two of three last weekend, but kept themselves in the race with a big win on Friday night, and knew the importance of Sunday’s affair, but just couldn’t come up with what they needed to live to fight another day.
“It sucks, there’s really no other way to put it,” a visibly emotional Nailers captain Nick Sorkin said. “You feel like you let everyone down, you feel like you let the fans down, you feel like you let down the guys next to you.
“It’s a tough one. I don’t know what to really pinpoint, I think a bounce here or a bounce there would’ve really done us some good but that’s how it goes sometimes.”
The Nailers have lost a lot of close games down the stretch, quite a few of which they led or were tied at one point, and saw valuable point after valuable point slip away and eventually it finally just became too many to overcome. According to Sorkin, knowing they were right there on the cusp of getting it done is what makes it so tough to swallow.
“We’ve got a lot of really good hockey players in that room, that’s why it hurts as much as it does. We’re in most games, that’s the hardest part, like I said there’s a (heck) of a lot of good hockey players in (the locker room) and that’s the hardest part because I feel like we’re so close.
“It’s hard to swallow because I love the group we have, I love coming to the rink every day and being friends with all these guys. That’s also one of the more disappointing things because everyone kind of goes about on their own way and you never know if you’re going to have a great group like this again.
“Like I said in the room, I’m humbled to even wear the ‘C’ for a group like this for however long it was.”
One of the things that has plagued the Nailers all season, the penalty kill, played a part in their final doing in on Sunday, as Reading went 2/3 on the man advantage, starting with a power play goal from Olivier Labelle 4:11 into the contest, banking a shot off of Nailers starter Sean Maguire from a tough angel that Maguire undoubtedly wanted back. Just over two minutes later, it was 2-0 Reading on a Steven Swavely goal set up by Matt Willows and Labelle.
Wheeling pulled within one before the end of the first, as RMU product Daniel Leavens continued his impressive start to his pro career netting his fourth goal in as many games, firing the puck past Reading goalie Mark Dekanich off a cross crease pass from Gage Quinney off a Sorkin rebound with just over two and half before the break.
Cody Wydo forced a turnover in the offensive zone, and the puck came to Christian Hilbrich high in the zone and he instantly let a shot go that beat Dekanich upstairs just 41 seconds in to the second even things up at 2-2. Just over a minute later, Garrett Meurs netted a Sorkin rebound for a 3-2 Nailers lead.
Wydo appeared to have made it 4-2 on a breakaway just past the game’s midpoint, slipping a shot through Dekanich and across the line, but in the process Dekanich knocked the net off it’s moorings and the referee, after consulting the goal judge who initially had turned the red light on, for whatever reason decided the goal should not count, and without video replay reviews in the ECHL (which judging off of replays on the scoreboard probably would’ve led to the goal counting) that was the call that stood.
About a minute later a seemingly harmless Todd Perry wrister from the point rolled up and over Maguire’s shoulder and into the net behind him to even it up at 3-3 and just like that Wheeling’s momentum was halted.
Going to the third in a tie game with the season on the line, Wheeling needed to score the next goal, but it was the Royals who would with another Labelle power play tally 6:25 into the final frame for a 4-3 lead.
The Nailers best chance to pull even came with five and a half to go when Hilbrich had what appeared to be a wide open net to shoot at with Dekanich down and out on the other side of the crease, but Dekanich reached out from out of nowhere and caught the puck in his glove just as it was about to go across the goal line.
A Willows empty netter after a failed Wheeling power play sealed the Nailers fate, sending an excellent Sunday crowd of 3,101 home disappointed knowing their Nailers will not be defending their Eastern Conference Championship from last season.
While they wont be in the playoffs, the Nailers aren’t done yet, with three games remaining including one more at home, Fan Appreciation Night next Friday sandwiched between trips to Brampton and Kalamazoo Wednesday and Saturday to wrap up the 25th anniversary season.
“I told them ‘guys, show up for work on Tuesday morning’ we’ve got another week,” Christian said. “You show up for work every day, I don’t care if you’re a hockey player, a or a fireman, or an accountant, or whatever you are, you show up for work.
“It’s disappointing, even after our long playoff run last year I felt like it took forever to get the season started … this is going to be a long (off season).
“I wouldn’t say we have nothing to play for. Still work, we’ve gotta play the games. I’m not going up to Brampton and Kalamazoo to get blown out, we’ve got fan appreciation night next weekend, they better come out play hard (for the fans). The pressure is off now, so just perform, exhale and go and play.”
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