The Wheeling Nailers have been without a majority of their key players since they returned to play after a two-week hiatus in January due to COVID-19. Patrick Watling got injured, Nick Rivera and Michael Joly signed PTO’s in the AHL and the Nailers signed Josh Winquist and Austin Fyten, who have made quick impressions in Wheeling before hitting the IR. We finally have good news, as Josh Winquist returned on Friday, meaning that the Nailers will be close to a healthy team for the first time since January and it comes at a critical point. The Nailers have a stretch of seven games against new opponents on the season, as the Wichita Thunder (second, Western Conference) make their way to Wheeling, before the Nailers head to Estero, Florida to meet the Eastern Conference leading Florida Everblades. They’ll wrap things up, as Travis Howe and the Jacksonville Icemen make their first trip up to the Friendly City.
These seven games are pretty much do-or-die for the Nailers (8-19-5), who have not been able to string together back-to-back wins on the season. The keys to victory for the Nailers do not change from what I said a few weeks ago, just play simple hockey and get shots against the Thunder. The Nailers looked better last week with Joly and Watling back in the lineup. Goaltender Alex D’Orio has looked solid after two rough starts to open the season. He picked up his first professional shutout last week, as the Wheeling Nailers faced the Indy Fuel. Taran Kozun has joined the Nailers after from the Allen Americans, however, has not yet seen any action.
The game plan changes a bit against Florida and Jacksonville from what I have seen watching those two square off. The Nailers need to play more physical against the Everblades and disrupt former Nailers Myles Powell and John McCarron. They will also need to solve Jake Hildebrand, who they have had so many issues with when he played for Kalamazoo. The key to solving Hildebrand from previous seasons is simple, just getting rebounds. I cannot tell you how many times the Nailers didn’t get a chance on rebounds that would have gone in when he was with the Wings. When the Icemen come to town, the game plan is very simple; stay disciplined. Travis Howe may be in the lineup after his antics in Fort Wayne caused him to get released. If Wheeling can follow these steps, then they can easily win five of the seven games.
Some surprising roster moves have taken place within the past week. Tyler Drevitch was released along with Hayden Hawkey, while Shane Starrett was moved up-and-down like a yo-yo between the Wilkes-Barre Penguins and Wheeling. The Nailers also signed Garet Hunt last week, the All-Time PIM leader in the ECHL. The native of Maple Ridge, B.C. impressed a lot last week with his game play. The lefty is an old school enforcer, so he has some skill which he brings with his fighting ability. Keep your heads up, Nailer fans. We have a half season left with a (*knocks on wood*) healthy team.