2015-16 Wheeling Nailers Season in Review
The 2015-16 season of Wheeling Nailers Hockey is one that will have fans talking for years to come, as it turned out to be one of the most memorable in the 24-year history of the team. The year got off to a promising start, but slipped into a slump during December and January, which found Wheeling tied for last place in the Eastern Conference. However, a tremendous late surge not only gave the Nailers their 14th all-time playoff berth, but also propelled them all the way to fifth place. April, May, and June were filled with thrilling moments, as Wheeling skated past the Florida Everblades, Reading Royals, and South Carolina Stingrays to capture the title of Eastern Conference Champions. Unfortunately, a Kelly Cup Title fell just out of reach, as the Allen Americans prevailed in six games. While the on-ice success certainly draws lots of accolades, the fans also deserve recognition, as over 100,000 attended games during the regular season for the first time since 2008-09. Additionally, game four of the Kelly Cup Final was a sellout - the 33rd in ECHL Final Series history and the fourth by the Nailers this year. Between the regular season and playoffs, Wheeling posted a 51-37-10 record, while welcoming 137,453 people into the arena.
With Clark Donatelli running the show at the beginning of the year for his fifth season with the Nailers, there were lots of familiar names on the roster, returning to the Friendly City with hopes of making history. 14 of the 25 players who broke training camp with the club had previous experience playing in Wheeling, including fan favorites Derek Army, Shane Bakker, Riley Brace, Patrick McGrath, Franky Palazzese, and Zack Torquato. Known for his outstanding scouting and recruiting abilities, Donatelli was able to land some strong first year players in the likes of Danny Fick, Brett Stern, and Matt Tabrum. As the season approached, the Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins also lended a helping hand, providing the likes of Brian Foster, Ty Loney, and John McCarron, among others.
With all of those players and a host of others, there was plenty of reason for optimism and excitement, as the first puck hit the ice on October 16th at Norfolk Scope Arena. The Nailers and Norfolk Admirals played to a scoreless tie in the first period on Opening Night, but at the 1:16 mark of the middle frame, Ty Loney put the Nailers ahead. He went on to score again later in the contest, but thanks to a 23-save shutout by Franky Palazzese, the first goal was all that mattered in a 3-0 whitewash.
Wheeling came up short in Virginia the following night, but got right back on track one week later, when it played the home opener in front of a sellout crowd of 5,330 at WesBanco Arena against the Brampton Beast. Patrick McGrath and Stefan Fournier didn't let the fans sit for long, as they dropped the gloves just two seconds into the home season. The first tally on home ice came shorthanded with 2:07 left in the first period, when Sahir Gill turned on the red light. He was joined on the scoresheet that evening by Derek Army, Connor Leen, Jarrett Burton, and Clark Seymour, as the Nailers delivered a solid blow to their new division rival, bashing the Brampton Beast, 5-1.
The first eight games saw the team produce a 4-4-0 record, and for 55 minutes in game nine, it looked like Wheeling would drop below the .500 mark. However, the morning of November 10th on Education Day saw a comeback that left 5,511 fans (mostly students) with jaws dropping down to the floor. The Nailers trailed the Cincinnati Cyclones, 5-2 with 4:16 left, when Clark Seymour brought the home team within two. He found the back of the net again 1:12 later, making the score 5-4. With 1:07 remaining, Zack Torquato tied the game, which likely would have guaranteed both teams of a point. However, with just over 30 seconds to go, Brett Stern put the home side ahead for the first time all day, and Jarrett Burton added an empty netter for a 7-5 final score. That day was a sign of things to come, as it was the first of 22 comeback wins by Wheeling during the regular season and playoffs.
The Nailers climbed as high as four games over .500 in November, thanks to a pair of road wins against the Florida Everblades, including a season-high 48-save performance by Brian Foster on the 20th. Wheeling added another game to that mark in December, putting together a 3-0-1 stretch, which included a 6-2 thumping of the Toledo Walleye on December 12th. The Nailers were on the penalty kill for the final 5:30 of that night. Unfortunately, things began to take a downward spiral after the holidays, which was also the time when Clark Donatelli earned his promotion to the AHL's Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
David Gove took over as Interim Head Coach, making his debut on December 26th in Toledo. While the sledding was difficult at the start, the team gave Gove his first win on January 2nd, playing as the Wheeling Thunderbirds on Throwback Night in front of 3,846 fans. Jarrett Burton scored twice that night, drawing an assist from his older brother Tanner on the opening marker. The new version of the T-Birds looked like the old ones when it came to the offense, scoring twice in 32 seconds during the third period, chasing Edward Pasquale from the crease in a 5-1 triumph at the Thunderdome.
The low mark of the season was three games under .500, but things began to turn around on January 22nd, when the Nailers ended a six-game losing streak in dramatic fashion. After Connor Leen knotted the score against the Kalamazoo Wings 1-1 in the third period, Andrew Cerretani fished out a loose puck in overtime, putting Wheeling into the win column. That was the first of nine overtime wins between the regular season and playoffs. The Nailers and Wings split their two-game weekend series, but Wheeling was able to take lots of positives on the road, where it proceeded to go 3-0-1 on a four-game venture through Elmira, Brampton, and Cincinnati.
The road was the place to be for the Nailers in February, who returned for a quick 1-1 set in the Wheel against the Reading Royals, before embarking on the most challenging stretch of the campaign - six games in nine days on enemy ice. Wheeling quickly showed the rest of the league that it wasn't going anywhere, posting a 5-1 record against the Adirondack Thunder, Manchester Monarchs, Elmira Jackals, and Brampton Beast. The latter of the two wins came in Brampton, including the trip's finale, which saw the Nailers fall behind 3-0, before rallying back to win 5-4 in overtime on a goal by Adam Krause.
As the calendar turned to March, Wheeling was just on the outside looking in, but that's when the magic really started to occur. The Nailers swept two games in Reading to start the month, winning 7-4 and 4-3, with Cody Wydo netting the lone hat trick of the season in the first match. The team then returned home to WesBanco Arena, where it took seven out of eight possible points against Brampton, Toledo, Kalamazoo, and Norfolk. But that wasn't all. Wheeling earned at least one standings point in five more games after that, compiling an 11-game point streak to jump all the way into a tie for fifth place in the Eastern Conference.
Struggling to do things the easy way, the Nailers went 1-3-1 in their next five games, leading to a crucial home-and-home series with Reading to conclude the regular season. On April 8th, Wheeling fell behind 3-0 in the home finale, but upon hearing of Elmira's 2-1 setback to Brampton, quickly turned things around. Trailing 3-2 with less than two minutes to go, John McCarron sniped in a pair of goals, lifting the Nailers to a 4-3 triumph, officially clinching a spot in the playoffs. One night later, Wheeling found itself trailing 2-1, but battled back again, taking a 4-2 decision to lock up fifth place.
The playoffs started with a bang, which caught the entire State of Florida off guard, as the Nailers chased 27-win goaltender Anthony Peters with four goals in the first period of game one. Wheeling took that game 6-3, but ended up falling behind in the series, 2-1 after consecutive losses. Game four wasn't looking much better, as the Everblades built a 3-0 lead. But once again, the Nailers proved that they weren't going anywhere, rallying back to score five of the last six goals in a 5-4 comeback win. Florida wasn't the same after that, as Wheeling won game five, 4-3, then closed out the series with a 2-1 triumph in game six at Germain Arena. Brian Foster was masterful in the clinching game, making 43 saves, while Shane Bakker washed on with the winning goal at 10:40 of the third period.
The opponent for round two was Reading, who upset top-seeded Toledo in seven games. The Nailers took it to the Royals, 4-1 in game one, outshooting them, 34-19. However, they fell behind in the series once again, trailing 2-1 after three contests. Game four was epic, as it took 104:22 to decide a winner, with Cody Wydo connecting on a breakaway at the 4:22 mark of triple overtime, giving Wheeling the 2-1 win. Reading won game five and had its bags packed for a quick visit in game six. Guess what? Still not going anywhere! With the score tied 2-2, the Nailers tied an ECHL record with six goals in the third period, ultimately spanking the Royals, 8-3, setting up the first home game seven in team history. Wheeling fell behind 2-0, but turned around to lead 3-2, before Reading forced overtime with 1:50 to play. That set the stage for one of the biggest goals in team history. At 19:22 of overtime, Riley Brace put 3,341 fans on their feet, sending the Nailers to the Eastern Conference Final with a shot into the right side of the net.
It was widely expected that the South Carolina Stingrays would be the toughest challenge in the Eastern Conference, and that was true for the first 114 minutes, as Wheeling was held scoreless. But the Nailers were able to go against the odds and get a split in North Charleston, scoring three times in the final six minutes of regulation, before Jarrett Burton struck for the winning goal at 5:03 of double overtime in game two. This time, Wheeling won game three with two goals in the third period, but managed to fall behind 3-2 in the series, as the Stingrays stole games four and five in West Virginia. So, the Nailers tempted history, as no team had ever won games six and seven on the road. You know the story about the bad boys by now - ain't goin' nowhere. South Carolina jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead in game six, but Wheeling stormed back with three straight goals, before eventually prevailing 4-3 in overtime on Burton's second winner of the series. Game seven was tightly played through two periods, but the Nailers proved to be too much to handle, scoring three times in the first 5:03 of the third, claiming the Eastern Conference Championship with a 5-2 victory.
The Kelly Cup Final began with a 5-3 setback to the defending champion Allen Americans, but game two was one of the wildest wins ever. Wheeling built a 7-1 lead in the second period, with the last of those seven markers going into an empty net, while the Nailers were playing shorthanded. Allen made a few blood pressures go through the roof with five goals in the third period, but in the end, Wheeling evened the series with a 7-6 final score. In game three, the Nailers took the lead in the series, thanks to James Melindy's tiebreaking goal with 12:35 remaining in regulation. Unfortunately, that was the last postgame celebration for Wheeling, as the Americans won games four, five, and six to decide the championship. The Nailers set team records by playing in 26 postseason games and 98 games overall. Brett Stern was the lone player to appear in all 98.
The Nailers will celebrate the 25th season of professional hockey in Wheeling during the 2016-17 campaign, which begins at WesBanco Arena on October 15th against the Brampton Beast at 7:05.
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