WHEELING - Reaching the postseason was always a goal, but never the goal. The No. 4 seed Wheeling Nailers begin their quest for a Kelly Cup championship at 7:05 tonight when they invade the North Charleston (S.C.) Coliseum for Game 1 of a Best-of-5 Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the No. 5 Stingrays.
''I wanted the (No.) 1 seed - I did,'' Wheeling coach Stan Drulia said. ''We wanted to have an attitude and a culture here. We're excited where we're at, with what we accomplished, but now the fun begins
''We've been trying to tell the guys that since we went down to Florida (for a late-season mini-series) - this is what it's all about, here.
''The guys have really responded.''
Wheeling opens the postseason on quite a roll, having earned at least a point in each of its last six games en route to a 7-1-2 finish to the regular season. The Nailers have done so with a combination of defense and goaltending, a stark contrast to earlier in the season when at one point they led the league in goals scored.
But a combination of call-ups (nine Nailers are in the AHL) and injuries, there were substantial growing pains during the transition as Wheeling secured only five of a possible 24 points during the month of February.
''I feel better going in now than I did in February,'' Drulia said. ''We're playing well, and we're a hard team to play against when we're chipping pucks and doing the little things.
''We've held ourselves accountable even through some tough times. I know as a staff (assistant coach John Wroblewski) and I have put pressure on ourselves to make sure we're trying to push the guys in the right direction.
''We put a lot of pressure on the guys to play the right way and they've taken to that.''
Wheeling has gotten to this point on the back of its goaltending duo of Peter Delmas and Patrick Killeen. The coaching staff admitted it would be tough choosing between the two, but they're going with Delmas (15-6-2, 2.03 GAA, .928 SVP, 3 SO) tonight, and as far as he'll take them, between the pipes. He'll probably be opposed by South Carolina veteran Todd Ford (12-8-2, 2.74 GAA, .901 SVP, 2 SO), who is 6 years older than the 21-year-old Delmas.
''South Carolina is a team that plays the same way as us,'' Drulia said. ''They've got good goaltending, they're responsible defensively all over the ice.
''I expect it to be quite the battle.''
The teams met twice during the regular season with the Nailers winning each time by way of shutout. Killeen authored a 22-save effort in a 1-0 blanking Nov. 21 in South Carolina, while Delmas stopped all 17 shots he faced in a 3-0 Nailers victory March 19 at WesBanco Arena.
''We got them down there when we were tired, and we got them here when they were tired,'' Drulia said. ''I think you're going to see two different teams.
''Obviously we've made a lot of changes, and they've turned things around there as of late, as well.''
Special teams generally tend to be magnified in the postseason.
If that's the case in this particular series, Wheeling would seem to have a decided advantage, at least on paper.
The Nailers ranked eighth (18.6 percent) on the power play and finished an extremely close second (85.3) out of 19 teams on the penalty kill. South Carolina, meanwhile, was 17th (15.2) and 13th (81.1), respectively.
There didn't seem to be much trepidation among the coaches as far as the Nailers starting the postseason on the road despite holding home-ice advantage in the series. To help teams with travel costs, the ECHL implemented a system for the first round where, if two competing cities are located more than 350 miles apart, a 2-3 format will be used rather than the traditional 2-2-1 that fans are accustomed to seeing.
''We had a choice where we could stay here and play (tonight)-Wednesday and go down there for three,'' Drulia said. ''It's 6-to-1 and half-a-dozen to another.
''If you go down there and grab a win you're coming back and feeling pretty good about yourself.
''We're only guaranteed one home game. It's the rules, the way it's drawn up.''
With that scenario in place, it would seem a must for the Nailers to at least gain a split on the road.
''It's a must not to lose three games,'' Drulia said. ''I hope we find another gear, because if not it will be a quick series.''
The Nailers list three players on their roster that are currently competing in the AHL: Defensemen David Urquhart (Hamilton) and Jason DeSantis (Wilkes-Barre), and forward Andrew Lord (Oklahoma City). There was considerable talk about placing either Ben Street, who was named the ECHL Rookie of the Year on Monday, or Nick Petersen on the roster, but the chances of either being available anytime soon was a long shot, at best. The Stingrays are led in scoring by Rob Ricci who ranks 29th in the league with 54 (26g-28a) points. Mickael Bedard, who is on a four-game point streak, paces Wheeling with 47 (20g-27a).