WHEELING - As the ECHL season enters the home stretch, the Wheeling Nailers are already in playoff mode. This despite the fact they would miss the postseason party if it began today.
The Nailers (25-23-10 - 60) enter tonight's 7:05 Atlantic Division battle with heated rival Elmira (32-20-7 - 71) at WesBanco Arena, eight points out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
''We've got 14 games left and we've told the guys the mistakes are going to be magnified,'' Wheeling coach Clark Donatelli said following practice Tuesday at the arena. ''It's a game of inches and you've got to be mentally in it.
Wheeling Nailers coach Clark Donatelli was a speaker at the Wheeling Rotary Club on Tuesday.
''We just can't come out and have six or seven guys take the night off. We can't have that anymore.''
The Nailers are coming off one of their finer weekends of the season, having picked up five of a possible six points at home. They beat Trenton on Saturday and rallied by Kalamazoo on Sunday, with the lone blemish starting off the run Friday in a shootout loss to the Titans that went eight rounds without Wheeling scoring.
''The biggest thing is the compete level,'' Donatelli said. ''It's great to see them come back against a really good, veteran team like Kalamazoo that takes advantage of mistakes.
''We've got another home game with Elmira here that is very important. They spanked us the last couple times, so it should be fun.''
The Jackals routed the Nailers 5-1 on Feb. 27 in the teams' last meeting. It was a game that featured four fights and 104 penalty minutes - 52 each.
''The guys don't like each other,'' Donatelli said. ''There's no love lost, that's for sure.''
Donatelli again pointed to the fact the Nailers are in control of their own playoff lives. That's the way he would like to see it stay, beginning with tonight's game.
''We don't want to get into a situation where we're hoping for another team to lose and it's not in our control,'' he said. ''We can hope Florida loses and this guy loses and South Carolina loses, and we can do all the math tricks.
''But we've got to win hockey games. If we don't win hockey games, it doesn't matter what anybody else does.''
The defending Kelly Cup champion Everblades hold the eighth spot in the East, but face a tall task down the stretch. Although nine of its last 15 games are at home, Florida plays six playoff teams in that span and embarks on a four-game roadtrip (Cincinnati, Fort Wayne twice and Kalamazoo) beginning tonight.
''There's an attitude change and the light has gone on,'' Donatelli said. ''The guys know.
''They've worked all year and it's still in our destiny to get it done.''
The Nailers have been fortunate to have three outstanding goalies this season in Peter Delmas, Scott Darling and Patrick Killeen. Donatelli revealed Tuesday what most had already expected: Delmas will carry the majority of the workload from this point forward.
''Peter's been here, he's done this and he's been in the playoffs before,'' Donatelli said.
That doesn't mean Darling won't play, however. It's just the opposite considering how condensed the schedule is going forward.
''We've got a lot of games - I think 9 in 12 days - so Scotty is going to have to play too,'' the coach said. ''Peter can't carry the mail all the way.
''We don't want to play Peter too much and get him hurt or tired because we're desperate here, but he's going to be our guy for now.''
A couple of forwards that have been out for a while were back on the ice practicing with the team. Donatelli said Scott Zurevinski, who was a full participant, and Chris Higgins, who wore a red no-contact jersey, are close to returning.
''He's a game-time decision and we'd like to get him back in the lineup (tonight),'' the coach said of Zurevinski. Donatelli added that Higgins could play as early this weekend, but if not, then next week.
Shawn Rine can be reached via e-mail at Rine@theintelligencer.net