By Shawn Rine
Ohio Sports Editor
The Intelligencer & Wheeling News Register
WHEELING, W.Va. – If Wheeling coach Greg Puhalski had things his way, it wouldn’t have gone down in the manner it did. Backing into the playoffs is nothing to brag about, but being there certainly is.
”They don’t ask how you got in,” Puhalski said at his weekly press conference at River City Ale Works. ”They only remember if you got in, and what you did when you got in.
”We’ve got a chance to respond and get back to playing where I know we’re capable of.”
Just like the regular season, the postseason begins with more than a few question marks, and ironically against Cincinnati. The Nailers and Cyclones open their Best-of-7 North Division semifinal series Thursday and Friday in the Queen City, then return to WesBanco Arena for Saturday night’s Game 3.
The big question is: which Wheeling team will show up? Will it be the one that shot out to a franchise-best start, or the one that struggled mightily down the stretch and needed the Cyclones to sweep Johnstown in a three-game set just to qualify?
”For us, we’ve got to have everybody playing,” Puhalski said. ”All our guys have got to contribute every single night.
”Especially the last three games we played, we’d only have about 10 players playing on any given night, and that’s not enough.
”You need all 18 players who are suited up that night, even including the backup goalie, making sure they’re prepared and ready to play.”
The goaltenders are certainly included in that observation. Both David Brown and Curtis Darling faltered in their last start, which isn’t a good sign going into the playoffs, where more often than not games are won by the guys behind the mask.
Puhalski said he had hoped one of the two would stand out above the other, but it hasn’t happened.
”I would like to play one goaltender. I’ve been trying to find it, but I just don’t think either one of them has taken the opportunity to be a No. 1 goaltender,” Puhalski said. ”I want one of them to step forward and grab the bull by the horns. It hasn’t happened.
”Their play will determine who plays.”
Aaron Clarke will definitely be playing. He was returned to the team Tuesday by Albany of the American Hockey League, and is joined on the playoff roster by forwards Andrew Lord, Kelly Miller, Billy Ryan, Chase Watson, Jason Payne, Chris Margott, Erik Johnson, Bryan Ewing, Jordan Morrison, Tommy Goebel, Tomas Klempa and Rob Sirianni, who is still with Philadelphia of the AHL. Defensemen will be Doug Krantz, Jonathan Ralph, Reid Cashman, Brock Sheahan, Mitch Ganzak, Chris Snavely, Scott Kalinchuk and Todd Spencer.
Knowledge is Power
For all intents and purposes, the Nailers have been playing playoff hockey for the last month or so. That’s something Puhalski believes could come in handy in the postseason.
”We’ve got to utilize our knowledge and make sure we play our game,” he said. ”We need to be better on our 1-on-1 battles, we need to get pucks to the net.
”We know these things. It’s a matter of us showing the desire and hunger.”
Can You Match the Intensity?
Playoff hockey is a different animal. Despite the fact Wheeling has been in a do-or-die situation for so long, what this young team is about experience could come as a shock to some.
Or at least you would think.
Puhalski says it should be a non-factor.
”Wherever they (played before), they’ve had experiences like this,” he said. ”They know how important these games are.
”I think our energy is still good. I think that is something that generally our team has been good with most of the season.”
Wanted: Team Leaders
Normally at this time of the season a coach has what he feels is a core group of leaders in the room. But with all the roster turnover this season, Wheeling is still in search of a few good men.
”I’m looking for players to step forward and take control of the hockey club as far as the actions and making sure the actions of their teammates are being followed, as well,” Puhalski said. ”Leadership is not a popularity contest; leadership is about doing what’s right with the hockey club.
”You can talk about it, but you’ve got to go out and do it.
”I believe we have capable leaders in our dressing room, and this is a chance for them to show that, not only to their fellow players, but more importantly to themselves.
Scouting the Cyclones
The two teams met 11 times during the regular season, with Wheeling earning a 6-3-2 record. But a lot has changed roster-wise for both clubs since they last met Jan. 17 at WesBanco Arena.
”They like to forecheck and play a speed type of game,” Puhalski said. ”I think they’re a puck-pursuing-type of team, generally speaking, where they like to constantly move their people and be on the attack.
”There was a lot of goals scored in the regular season between these two teams, (but) I don’t know if that’s going to be the case or not. But I’m sure there will be a fair number of goals this series.”