By Shawn Rine
Ohio Sports Editor
The Intelligencer & Wheeling News Register
WHEELING, W.Va. – There’s not a lot a first-year professional hockey player can do to get ready for the postseason. Practice and preparation only get you so far, but eventually it’s time to lace up the skates and hit the ice under the bright lights.
Wheeling’s Boomer Ewing didn’t quite know what to expect, but it didn’t take him long to figure it out.
”It’s a lot different than the regular season,” he said Tuesday at WesBanco Arena, as the Nailers readied themselves for Game 4 of their North Division semifinal series with the Cincinnati Cyclones. ”It’s do-or-die, so everybody is competing a little bit harder.”
And everybody, including Ewing, is hitting a lot more and a lot harder. If you don’t believe it, he’s got the cut on the right side of his bottom lip to prove it.
A physical series that shows Wheeling leading 2-1, resumes at 7:05 p.m. on Wednesday with the Nailers hoping to rebound from a 7-3 loss last Saturday in Game 3. If they are to do so, a much better effort will be needed.
”That’s what happens when you don’t work together as a team – when you don’t have everybody supporting each other all over the ice,” Wheeling coach Greg Puhalski said. ”When you’re turning the puck over and trying to make plays that aren’t there, basically it’s not having all five guys on the ice working for a common goal.
”Two guys are working to get the puck out, and three guys are flying the zone looking to get breakaways. It takes a team game to forecheck and break the puck out.
”When you do that, it makes the game much simpler.”
What’s so frustrating for the Nailers, is they did everything they were supposed to during Games 1 and 2 in Cincinnati, in which they outscored the home team by a combined 7-2 score.
Puhalski says there’s ”no magic formula” to the team’s success, or lackthereof.
It’s simple – literally.
”We can’t have any passengers this time of the season,” he said. ”That’s why hockey is a great sport. It really is a team game in the true essence of the word.
”When you have all your team members contributing it’s a beautiful thing to watch.”
Ewing seems to have a grasp on the problem. For two games the Nailers took care of their own business, not worrying about what a gritty, physical Cyclones team was or was not attempting to do.
That all changed Saturday when, for the first time, Cincinnati seemed to get under Wheeling’s skin and force it into a game it didn’t want to, and doesn’t have the capability to play.
”I’d say so,” Ewing said. ”We got away from our game plan, but we’re a good team and we’ll get focused and be ready to go.
”You can’t worry about them; you’ve got to worry about yourself.”
That’s easier said than done in a series that after tonight will have played its first four games in a seven-day span. If that doesn’t breed contempt, nothing does. It’s reached the point where each team probably knows more about each other than they do themselves.
”We just got frustrated with ourselves, which is something we’ve battled with all season long,” Puhalski said. ”We’ve got to play for that moment, for that shift.
”We’ve got to have all five guys out on the ice focusing on what we need to do as a team.”
Curtis Darling is back in goal for the fourth consecutive time for Wheeling. After surrendering two goals on 72 shots in the games in Cincinnati, Darling allowed six on 40 shots in the Game 3 loss.
Puhalski, however, is not willing to lay those at his goaltender’s feet.
”No, he’s played really well for us,” Puhalski said.
From his perspective, Ewing expects to see the team that shut Cincinnati down on its home ice.
”Anyone can pretty much beat anyone in this league,” he said. ”But when we play well, I don’t think anyone can beat us – I think we’re one of the best teams.
”Hopefully we’ll give our best effort, and if we do we’ll win.”