By Shawn Rine
Ohio Sports Editor
The Intelligencer & Wheeling News Register
WHEELING, W.Va. – Say this much for the Wheeling Nailers: they never take the easy road.
After being left for dead near the end of the regular season, then again after they dropped three straight at home in their Best-of-7 North Division semifinal series with Cincinnati, here they stand – loud and proud.
In a remarkable show of character, Wheeling staved off elimination Saturday night with a 6-0 hammer job of the Cyclones at U.S. Bank Arena, in which Curtis Darling turned aside 41 shots to earn the first playoff shutout in his professional career.
I’d like to say I’m not surprised by all that’s transpired – and a lot has – but I simply can’t do that with a clear conscience. I’m just as shocked as the next guy, because when I walked out of the tunnel coming from Coach Greg Puhalski’s office Friday night, it was as if somebody had just died inside the locker room.
How could they possibly get back up after taking one Cincinnati body blow after another, finished off by a hard right to the jaw?
A lot of people, including myself, have questioned the heart and interest of this team at one point or another during the season. Win or lose tonight, I think we can put that one to bed.
If they don’t have heart, my name’s Sidney Crosby.
How else do you explain defenseman Reid Cashman turning over the puck and costing his team the lead and the momentum late in Game 5, then rebounding the next night to get the Nailers off and running with his first of the series 40 seconds in?
How else do you explain veteran winger Erik Johnson being forced to watch Game 5 from the stands as a healthy scratch, then re-entering the lineup a night later and putting the puck in the back of the net?
And finally, how else do you explain Darling shaking off some horrible defense by his teammates – they would be the first to admit it – in the three WesBanco Arena losses to record the shutout?
And, boy, Darling has been other worldly this series on the road, allowing two goals on 113 shots.
So what it comes down to is Monday’s Game 7 at U.S. Bank Arena, where Wheeling is 3-0 this postseason, outscoring the Cyclones by a 13-2 count.
In case you’re wondering, Wheeling is 8-4 all-time with the chance to eliminate an opponent, and 3-2 on the road in such situations. However, it’s 0-1 in deciding games on the road.
You’d have to think at some point the home team will win a game in this series, which is the first of its kind in league history.
And for what it’s worth, all the pressure is on the Cyclones, who are still the defending Kelly Cup champions until someone takes it from them. And it also says here the Nailers aren’t even supposed to in this position. They backed into the playoffs, then proceeded to cough up home-ice advantage after working so hard to get it.
Shows what we know, huh?
Win or lose tonight, this will go down as a wildly successful season that has been forever defined by the gut-check victory Saturday night.
My pick? Let’s just say I’ll be making some travel arrangements shortly for either Elmira or Trenton, because I won’t question this team again and neither should you.