WHEELING - It's not uncommon for hockey players to sport all lengths of beards throughout the season, but when grizzly Wheeling goaltender Mike Condon emerged from the locker room Tuesday night there was a purpose.
''We're all growing our beards right now because it's been the playoffs for about a week and a half,'' he said.
The Kelly Cup playoffs don't technically begin for a few more weeks, but the Nailers are in a fight for their lives just to get in. Tuesday's 4-0 blanking of the Toledo Walleye at WesBanco Arena, the team's fifth straight victory at home and eighth in its last nine overall, may well go a long way in deciding their fate.
Photo by Scott McCloskey
The Wheeling Nailers defeated the Toledo Walleye 4-0, giving the team its fifth straight win Tuesday.
Sahir Gill, Tyler Fernandez, Max MacKay and Christiaan Minella all had two points as Wheeling (36-25-6 - 76) moved two points ahead of eighth-place Fort Wayne and three up on ninth-place Florida, both of whom were idle. In addition, the Nailers are two back of Cincinnati (sixth) though it has a pair of games in hand.
''I am really impressed with the way the guys are playing and I am excited to see what the team can do,'' said Condon, who is one shutout from equaling Andy Franck (five) for the most by a rookie in franchise history. ''That's the saying in the room right now, is just get in and cause some problems for other teams.
''We're big, we're physical and we're fast, and we've got some finishing touch as you saw.''
After a scoreless first period the Nailers struck three times in 17 shots against Toledo (21-40-5 - 47) Hannu Toivonen in the second.
At 4:36 Gill stopped behind the Walleye net and fired in front to Max MacKay. With Toivonen leaning the other way, MacKay slipped the puck in short-side for his 16th of the season. A little more than four minutes later Wheeling doubled the score as Chaz Johnson's shot deflected off Shane Bakker into the net, giving the latter his sixth goal.
''We're really picking up our game and it's a great time to be peaking, right before playoffs,'' said Minella, who just more than two minutes later put the game on ice. ''Hopefully we keep playing this way and carry it into the postseason.''
In an almost carbon copy of the team's first goal, albeit with the scorer and secondary assist exchanged, Gill stopped, turned and fed Minella who went top shelf on the far side for his ninth of the season in only 18 games.
''They were pretty similar," Gill said. ''I just heard Max and Christiaan calling for it, took a quick look and threw it.
''They had two nice shots there. I think Minella went just under the bar.''
The Walleye threw everything they had at Condon in the third and he made the three-goal cushion stand up, with some admitted luck.
''They had some good opportunities there in the third - three posts in a row - but the guys stuck to it.''
With Toledo pushing to break up the shutout in the closing moments, Fernandez, who earlier in the game extended his points streak to five in a row, snuck behind the defense, took a stretch pass from Peter Merth and deposited his 11th of the campaign with 19 seconds remaining.
''It's in our own hands now so we want to come out and win (tonight),'' Coach Clark Donatelli said of a rematch with the Walleye. ''Like we tell these guys, we're already in the playoffs. We're down to five games and it is going to make or break the season.
''Every game is a playoff-type atmosphere and we try to create that for the guys.''
The Nailers' penalty kill finished a perfect 7-for-7 against the league's fourth-ranked power play.
Toledo0 0 0 - 0
Wheeling0 3 1 - 4
1st Period- No Scoring.Penalties-Sylvester Whl (cross-checking), 9:03; Minella Whl (elbowing), 15:53; Novak Tol (hooking), 17:00.
2nd Period-1, Wheeling, MacKay 16 (Gill, Minella), 4:36. 2, Wheeling, Bakker 6 (Johnson, Fernandez), 8:20. 3, Wheeling, Minella 9 (Gill, MacKay), 10:16. Penalties-Elbrecht Tol (roughing, fighting - major), 5:43; Boak Whl (fighting - major), 5:43; Fernandez Whl (interference), 10:54; Sylvester Whl (hooking), 12:52; Peroff Tol (hooking), 15:48; Minella Whl (high-sticking), 16:53.
3rd Period-4, Wheeling, Fernandez 11 (Merth, Stevenson), 19:41. Penalties-Johnson Whl (tripping), 4:25; Ratchuk Whl (holding), 15:04.
Shots on Goal-Toledo 9-9-16-34. Wheeling 8-17-7-32.
Power-Play Opportunities-Toledo 0-7; Wheeling 0-3.
Goalies-Toledo, Toivonen 12-14-0-0 (32 shots-28 saves). Wheeling, Condon 20-12-0-4 (34 shots-34 saves).
Referee-Nic Leduc (14); Linesmen-Ryan Daisy (64), Shaun Morgan (71).