WHEELING - Times sure have changed recently for the Wheeling Nailers.
It wasn't all that long ago the club was basking in a 12-game point streak that paved the way to an eight-point cushion on defending Kelly Cup champion Reading in the Atlantic Division. Fast forward eight games later and the Nailers have won just once, allowing the Royals to creep within two points, with three games in hand, as the ECHL season approaches its midway point.
''We're going to have ups and downs throughout the year,'' Wheeling coach Clark Donatelli said. ''We're in a spiral right now and we've got to get out of it.
''We're going to go back to the drawing board and back to work. We've got to go back to the way we were doing things before.''
Both Donatelli and forward Chaz Johnson said after Wednesday night's 4-1 home loss to the Royals that the effort has not been to the level that's expected during the rough patch. The result is Wheeling being outscored 34-18 the last nine games, including 11-2 in its most recent three.
That's particularly troubling for the coach, who has 11 players that have competed in a game for the Nailers currently in the American Hockey League. That won't be the case for much longer, which means jobs could well end up being lost when the parent Pittsburgh Penguins begin to get healthy, which in turn will have a trickle-down effect to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and on to Wheeling.
''Guys are getting an opportunity to prove they can play in this league and move on the (AHL) and they're just not getting it done,'' Donatelli said. ''Guys are missing out and not taking advantage of their opportunities.
''Whether they are getting complacent or not I don't know, but it's not going to be tolerated.''
Future Is Now
Though it seems highly unlikely, under new ECHL rules a division-winning team could theoretically miss the postseason. Beginning this season a division championship does not guarantee a club a top-three seed. Instead, teams are simply seeded 1-through-8 in order of accumulated points.
The Nailers, who lead the Atlantic but are just two points out of the eighth and final Eastern Conference spot, have a chance to start the turnaround at 7 tonight when they welcome arch-rival Elmira to WesBanco Arena. With Reading in Toledo, Wheeling potentially has a chance to create a little breathing room.
The Nailers are 5-1-0 this season against the Jackals (9-16-3 - 21), who are tied for last in the conference. Wheeling holds a 19-13 goal advantage in the season series.
''We have to do a better job at a lot of things right now,'' Johnson said. ''There's no panic but we have to do a better job. We have to get back to doing what made us successful on our run.
''Teams are winning now and we're not. We see what's going on.''
It's Still Miller Time
Rookie Wheeling defenseman Ryley Miller was assessed a match penalty in the third period of the loss to the Royals for an illegal check to the head of forward T.J. Syner. The play carried an automatic review and possible suspension if the league saw fit.
However, word came Thursday that Miller was fined an undisclosed amount but will not miss any action. That is probably a result of Syner not being seriously injured as he returned on his team's ensuing power play.
Match penalties, which are whistled for intent to injure, are not often called, in part because they are arguably the hardest to determine. There's little question it was the type of hit officials are trying to remove from the game, but likewise, it wasn't hard to see that Syner milked this one for all it was worth.
I'd say the ECHL got it right.
Mathieu Corbeil returned to the Nailers from his call-up to Utica on Thursday and will likely be between the pipes tonight against the Jackals. To make room on the roster, Wheeling released 38-year-old Alex Westlund.
Pack The House
Tonight is being touted as 'Pack The House Night' at The Bank, with all tickets costing just $5. In addition it's Frosty Friday, which means adult beverages can be purchased for $1 until the end of the first intermission and the first 2,500 fans get a team poster.
Shawn Rine can be reached via email at email@example.com