WHEELING - It's OK to admit now, what with Wheeling having come out unscathed on the other side. When Greenville's Brendan Connolly tied Wednesday night's Game 7 with 23 seconds remaining, you thought the Nailers' season was finished.
There was no way they could get up off the mat from that type of crushing blow - not against a team that gushes talent the way the Road Warriors do. Certainly they couldn't do it on the road, in a hostile environment. Did you see how long Wheeling goaltender Peter Delmas sat in his crease during the aftermath of that shocking occurrence?
A turnaround seemed as likely as a day without talk of President Obama's birth certificate or the Royal Wedding.
From left, Tyler Murovich, Tim Crowder, Kyle Bushee, and the rest of the Wheeling Nailers are headed to the Eastern Conference Finals.
It seems so silly that any of us would doubt this group anymore. Remember the much-talked-about month of February that yielded all of three points and made the postseason look more like a pipe dream than a certainty?
The thing is, while all of Nailers Nation was distraught, these guys were calm, cool and collected. Instead of panic, there was a sense of confidence within the confines of the locker room during the intermission that preceded overtime.
Nonetheless, this Wheeling club is too young to cope with this kind of heartbreak, I remember thinking. You've heard of the Baby Penguins, but these are the Baby Nailers - 12 rookies who have never been in the type of an encounter that is a win-or-go-home Game 7.
And when Greenville poured on the pressure to begin the the overtime period, you got the feeling it wasn't a matter of if, but when Wheeling's season would come to an abrupt halt. But Delmas made a high-quality lunging save to prolong things, and Coach Stan Drulia wisely used a timeout to settle his troops down.
The next thing you know, Joey Haddad was muscling around a defender at the blue line and bearing down on Greenville goaltender Nic Riopel, who unbeknownst to him, didn't have a shot. That's because instead of shooting, Haddad feathered the puck to Chris Kushneriuk for a tap-in, series-winning goal.
Now it's off to the Eastern Conference Finals and a matchup with a Kalamazoo team that has lost just once in the postseason, winning seven in row. After eliminating Reading in four games, the K-Wings will not have played in six days when the puck drops at 7:35 tonight at Wings Stadium.
"They're awful similar to (Greenville)," Drulia said. "They're a skilled team with a lot of firepower."
Kalamazoo is led by the line of Trent Daavettila (playoff high-tying 13 points), Andrew Fournier and Darryl Lloyd. Goaltender Ryan Nie is 7-1 with a 3.01 goals-against average and a save percentage of .906.
The Nailers will counter with Haddad, who has 12 points, Paul Crowder with 11, and Kushneriuk, whose four-point effort Wednesday night gave him seven for the postseason. A healthy scratch in Game 7, Tim Crowder is tied for third on the team with seven points.
Delmas, of course, will be in goal throughout. He's 7-2-1 with a 2.68 GAA and a SVP of .915.
Kalamazoo held a 5-3-1 advantage in the season series, including a 3-2-0 record at home, where it is a perfect 4-0 in the playoffs. However, the Nailers have done their best work lately on the road, going 4-2.
Wheeling has not trailed in a series this postseason, in part because of its work when scoring the first goal. In such situations the Nailers are 5-1, while K-Zoo is 6-0.
Game 2 is Friday in Kalamazoo, with the series returning to Wheeling for Games 3, 4 and 5 on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday of next week.
Shawn Rine can be reached via e-mail at Rine@theintelligencer.net