After a tough weekend last week, the Wheeling Nailers need the stars to align to make it into the playoffs. The first part of any plausible scenario to get them in is them taking care of their own business and winning their remaining games. Friday night at WesBanco Arena they got that part of the quest off to a good start, jumping ahead to 3-0 and 4-1 leads on division rival Brampton before hanging on late to lock up a 4-3 victory.
“I think the early goals really helped our confidence,” Nailers coach Jeff Christian said. “That’s what playoff hockey looks like, that’s what it feels like.
“We didn’t panic when we were up, we didn’t panic when they scored, we just kept moving forward. That’s what that feels like to win a playoff game and that’s what that was (for Wheeling).
“I was proud of them.”
Daniel Leavens scored a pair of goals, including the game winner, giving him three in just three games since coming to Wheeling from nearby Robert Morris University, and was a force all night long.
“Even more than (scoring goals) it’s that he has the ability to make plays,” Christian said of Leavens. “He sees the ice extremely well.
“I think as a forward he’s got the best play-making game and he scores two goals. It’s great to see, he’s really made an impact here, we’re happy that he’s here and to have him as part of the future.
“He can skate, he can grind, he can really see the ice well.”
Cody Wydo netted his 30th goal of the season, making him the first player to reach that mark for Wheeling in seven years (Thomas Beauregard), and notched an assist as well for a two point night to tie him for the team lead (Kevin Schulze) with 57 points on the campaign.
“That was a big win for us to keep us in the hunt,” Wydo said. “We know it’s do or die now, we can’t lose any games, so everyone was going hard.
“No (we haven’t given up). We still know we can fight to get in, obviously we need help from some other teams, but if we do our jobs you never know what can happen.”
Wheeling came out flying with the game’s first 6 shots on goal and it led to Wydo opening the scoring at the 3:27 mark fo the first period when Ross McMullan found him alone for a breakaway, and he did was does best and buried it.
Then working on a power play a little over three minutes later, Wydo fired a shot off of a Schulze rebound and the second rebound went right to Leavens on the other side of the crease for a 2-0 lead.
Wheeling, who fired 12 of the first 16 shots on goal, wasn’t done yet in the first as Kale Kerbashian fed Tyler Currier for a one-timer and he cranked it through the legs of Beast starter Andrew D’Agostino (27 saves) for a 3-0 lead after one.
A Connor Crisp goal in the second period made it 3-1 headed to the third, where 2:08 in acting captain Nick Sorkin found Leavens behind the defense and he put on a slick forehand-backhand move and put a Crosby-esque backhander upstairs for a 4-1 lead, and eventually it turned out to be the winner.
“We had a really good start tonight,” Leavens said. “We talked as a team before the game and realize how big the two points were tonight and moving forward every game the rest of the year
“It starts with one game, one period, so we’re just trying to take it shift by shift. It is a long shot, we’re well aware of what the odds are, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. Crazier things have happened and if we win our games that’s all we can control.
“I came in just looking to help out this team … I’ve tried that move a lot of times and it usually doesn’t go in I won’t lie, I’m coming down the right side there, Nick makes a great pass, I threw a little fake at the goalie and he kind of bit and froze and I thought maybe today will be the day it finally goes in and it did.”
After goals from Matt Petgrave and Jordan Henry pulled the Beast within one, Mike Webster – who Christian said he thought had his best game as a pro – made the game saving play of the night diving in front of a shot with his goaltender Sean Maguire (32 saves) down and out on the other side of the crease with under two minutes to go to preserve the lead, and the Nailers were able to hang on.
Reading picked up a point, but blew a two goal lead and fell in OT to Norfolk, and they host Brampton tonight in a game the Wheeling fans need to hope the Beast prevail in and do so in regulation. Manchester was off, but hosts last place Elmira (who took of three from the Monarchs last week) the next two nights. Wheeling sits five back of Manchester (who has a game in hand) and six back of Reading with the Royals coming to town Sunday for what could be a massive game for the Nailers.
“We’ve got to beat them,” Christian said. “We’ve got to do the same thing, we’ve got to jump on them early and play physical and get right after them.”
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