By Brian Compton
Last season, Andy Franck appeared to be one of those goaltenders who was on the fast track to bigger and better things.
The Wheeling Nailers goaltender shined in his rookie season, winning 33 games in 55 appearances with a 2.28 goals-against average and a .919 save percentage. His numbers landed him a spot in the All-Star Game and his efforts helped the Nailers earn a berth in the Kelly Cup Playoffs.
This year things haven’t been as easy. Franck has done everything possible to get Wheeling back to the postseason, but a porous defense combined with a lack of punch up front have the Nailers at 26-31-6 with nine games remaining in the regular season.
“Coming off last year, I was an All-Star and I did well,” said Franck, who also tied for the ECHL lead with five shutouts in 2005-06. “It’s been up and down this year. We’ve got a great bunch of guys, but it just hasn’t really clicked for us. There have been times when it has.”
Now is actually one of those times. The Nailers have won three-straight games, with the most recent coming Tuesday night in an impressive 4-2 win at Cincinnati. They’ll look to extend the streak to four games Friday night when they host the Trenton Titans at WesBanco Arena. Tuesday’s win had Wheeling eight points behind the fifth-place Reading Royals in the North Division.
The top five teams in the division make the playoffs. And if the Nailers have any chance of squeaking into that final spot in this tight playoff race, they’re going to have to step things up in front of their top-notch netminder. Wheeling head coach Glenn Patrick admitted that his team has far-too-often relied on Franck.
“He’s played very well all season,” Patrick said. “It’s just that I’ve had to put too much of a load on his shoulders. He’s been my only goaltender up until now. When a goalie’s playing three games in three nights, week after week, it’s too hard on him to put a consistent season together.
“We haven’t been able to score enough goals to take the pressure off of our goaltending,” Patrick added. “I think that’s been our biggest weakness.”
Franck received some help when Andrew Penner was reassigned by the American Hockey League’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on March 1. Penner has made nine appearances for the Nailers as Patrick finally finds himself with a pair of quality goaltenders. He’s confident that Penner’s arrival will make Franck even better than he was before.
“You have to have a two-goaltender situation so that he can be at his best,” Patrick said. I think that he’s very competitive. He has a mindset where it doesn’t matter what the score is, he just wants to win.”