By Mark Schmetzer
Cincinnati Enquirer Contributor
CINCINNATI – If goalkeepers and defense were talked about at all in this season’s Wheeling-Cincinnati series, it was with derision. After all, the two teams combined to average 9.3 goals per game in their 11 regular-season meetings.
Wheeling’s Curtis Darling and the Nailers defenders waited until the Kelly Cup Playoffs started Thursday night to upgrade their image.
Darling made 36 saves as Wheeling handed the Cyclones – the defending Kelly Cup champions and this season’s North Division titlists – a 4-1 loss at U.S. Bank Arena in the first game of their best-of-7 playoff series.
“I think everybody expected every game to be 8-6, but in the playoffs, the team that plays solid defensive hockey is going to win, and that’s what Wheeling did tonight,” Cyclones coach Chuck Weber said.
The series continues at 7:30 p.m. on Friday before moving to Wheeling for Game 3 Saturday.
A crowd of 2,376, the largest weeknight turnout of the season saw the Cyclones suffer their first loss in eight divisional semifinal games under Weber.
The teams combined to go 1-for-10 on power plays.
Darling had two games with more than 50 saves during the regular season before sitting out the last three games for the Nailers, who finished fourth in the North.
“They didn’t do anything different,” Weber said. “Darling made the saves, and they took advantage of our mistakes.”
Wheeling took a 2-0 lead late in the first period with goals 29 seconds apart. Forward Aaron Clarke, a recent addition to the team, picked up a loose puck at the blue line, skated in unchallenged from the left wing and scored with a wrist shot into the top of the net over goalkeeper Loic Lacasse’s right shoulder with 4:44 left in the period.
Wheeling, which lost its last two games of the regular season and three of its last four, needed less than a half-minute to double the lead. Forward Bryan Ewing, the ECHL’s top rookie scorer, fed fast-breaking forward Billy Ryan, who carried the puck up the slot and beat Lacasse with a low shot.
Cincinnati’s comeback chances became more difficult when forward Matt Syroczynski, the Cyclones’ second-leading goal scorer with 25, was whistled for boarding and a game misconduct with 19.1 seconds left in the first period.
The Cyclones also lost defender Jamie Coghlan for the rest of the game after he suffered what was announced as a lower body injury midway in a collision with a Wheeling player behind Cincinnati’s net midway through the second period.
Cincinnati avoided its second shutout of the season when forward Felix Petit scored just his second goal of the season with 5:27 left in the game, but Wheeling answered 32 seconds later when Miami product Mitch Ganzak scored a power-play goal.
Nailers’ forward Tommy Goebel added an empty-net goal with 1:41 left in the game.