Wednesday night at Wheeling’s WesBanco Arena, smash-mouth hockey was being played and it wasn’t the team from Texas that was behind it. It was the Bad Boys from the Wheel finishing every check, and every player doing so, right from the drop of the puck. The end result was the Wheeling Nailers knocking off the Allen Americans in game three, 3-2, in a game during which they never trailed, for a 2-1 lead in the best-of-7 series for the Kelly Cup.
“That’s what we’re looking for,” Nailers coach Jeff Christian said, “60 minutes, all hands on deck, timely goals, great goaltending, defensive side, and discipline.
“That was what playoff hockey, championship hockey looks like. If we can do that, we have a real legitimate chance at this thing.
“That was awesome. Guys are buying in, they’re really coming together at the right time. It was amazing to watch.”
James Melindy, known as a tough, in your face, physical defenseman on most nights provided the difference, dangling like next level or beyond skilled forward and sliding his first goal of the playoffs (and in a Wheeling uniform) through Americans starter veteran Riley Gill (22 saves) – who was making his first start since the conference finals having missed games one and two with an injury – 7:25 into the third to make it a 3-2 Wheeling lead, a lead that would stand.
“I was just going to drive the net and (Riley Brace) kind of snuck it by that first defender,” Melindy said. “(Jarrett) Burton was driving the net and calling for it.
“I was going to pass it over but I found a lane and just was able to get it five-hole.
“I’m more of a nitty-gritty type of player, try to get under other team’s skin, so anytime I can pitch in offensively to help the team it’s nice.”
Not to be overlooked on the play, right before it occurred leading scorer Riley Brace had lost his stick and Wheeling equipment manger Billy Higgins got him a new one in a smooth hand-off in time for him to get the primary assist on the goal, which he said they’ve seen the skill displayed on in practice.
“We’ve seen that quite a few times (in practice), we call him Scotty Niedermayer in the room,” Brace said jokingly. “He’s done an unbelievable job.
“I thought he really came into his own in the South Carolina series, he’s picked his game up to a different level.
“He showed great poise, jumping into the rush, out-waiting their D, and then scoring. It was very nice to see a guy like Meller get rewarded for all the hard work he’s put in here.”
Franky Palazzese stood tall all night, making several key stops including flashing the leather on a handful of high quality shots through traffic he had no business seeing, but none of his 25 saves were better than the one he made on leading playoff goal scorer Greger Hanson from the slot in the closing seconds, instinctively kicking out his right pad to deny the equalizer.
“I heard their guy one-time it and I kind of went down and luckily I did,” Palazzese said of the save. “It hit me in the pad, it was a big save.
“Top to bottom every body on our team just wants this so bad, you can see guys blocking shots. Some guys were even taken shot almost right in the throat, it was unbelievable.
“The speed of that game was incredible, I felt like I was playing in the AHL out there.”
After a scoreless first in which Wheeling established that smash-mouth hockey, or Bully Hockey as Nailers fans like to call it, Ty Loney opened the scoring at the 3:18 mark of the middle period, keeping the puck himself on a 2-on-1 and sliding a shot along the ice past Gill for his seventh of the playoffs unassisted.
Less than a minute later, Gary Steffes answered to tie up the score at 1-1, blistering a shot past Palazzese from the left circle for his 11th.
Anton Zlobin scored his fifth power play goal in as many games for his sixth of the playoffs with a little over six minutes to play before the intermission, getting his stick on a Brace feed to direct the puck by Gill from right on top of the crease, making it a 2-1 Nailers advantage at the second intermission.
“I get power play shifts and that’s my specialty, being big part of the power play” Zlobin said. “I try to do my best (on it).”
4:22 into the third, working on their lethal power play, Allen again tied the game with Hanson’s 13th, as he took a Chad Costello feed right in the middle of the slot and whipped the puck just inside the post making it 2-2.
The solid Wednesday night crowd of 3,484 was wild all night, but from the time Melindy netted Wheeling’s third goal until the long after the clock struck zero’s, they were deafening.
“I was taking a drink of water and I looked up and saw those towels,” Palazzese said. “It was unbelievable, the fans tonight.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of something like that, it was pretty special. I tried to take in the moment.”
Even being up 2-1, Wheeling knows they have a lot of work to do still, and how important following it up in game four Friday night at 7:35 in Wheeling will be.
“Friday night we’ve got to have the same effort,” Christian said. “It’s just focus on one game at a time.
“(Allen) is not going to quit. We have to take it from them, they are the champs three years in a row, they know how to win. They’re going to come out flying, they’re going to come out hungry.
“Friday night is the pivotal game of the series, we have to have it.”
Injury notes: Dyson Stevenson left for Allen in the first after a hit from Zlobin, and I do not recall seeing him again. On top of that, Tristan King left twice and did not return the second time for the Americans, either. Wheeling was not without misfortune in that department as well, as Dan O’Donaghue had to be helped off the ice after an early penalized hit and did not return, either. There was no update available, and since it’s the time of year it is, I would be shocked if there is one before the teams take the ice on Friday.
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