WHEELING - The South Carolina Stingrays have gotten progressively better each game during their Eastern Conference quarterfinal with the Wheeling Nailers. The difference in the Best-of-7 series is that goalie Mike Condon has simply been brilliant from the start.
Condon made 38 saves Wednesday night at WesBanco Arena, none bigger than Dan Pallis' blast through traffic from the point with 42 seconds left, as Wheeling held on for a 1-0 victory to put South Carolina in a 3-0 hole and on the brink of elimination. Game 4 is scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday.
It's Condon's eighth shutout of the season, fifth in seven starts, and second in three playoff games - tying the most in franchise history for an entire postseason. To take it a step farther, the rookie goaltender is 7-0 in April - five shutouts - with a 0.42 goals-against average and a robust .987 save percentage.
''I really don't know how to explain it, but it's just a product of a lot of hard work and attention to detail,'' Condon said. ''It's a lot of focus on the part of the guys and every day we come to work ready to work on our jobs.
''It shows on the ice during games.''
Christiaan Minella, on assists from Dustin Stevenson and Max MacKay, provided all the offense Condon needed with a goal that pretty much typifies the Nailers' mindset. Falling down to the ice in a scoreless game late in the second period, Minella shoveled the puck past South Carolina goaltender Allen York, who stopped the other 25 shots he faced, for his second goal of the playoffs.
''The 'D' kind of overskated and I was on one knee with the puck just laying there,'' Minella recalled. ''York make a great play on the first tip but I was lucky it was sitting there.
''This team's special. We've got a great group of guys who work hard and never quit, so to get that goal with nine seconds left to go in the period, it was big for us.''
Now comes the toughest part, as if the first three were easy, in trying to close the Stingrays out with a sweep. It has been said that the final victory in a series is often the most difficult to achieve.
''This thing is one from over and we have to be better,'' Wheeling coach Clark Donatelli said. ''They're going to be coming hard and we've got to answer the bell on Friday.
''We keep saying that every game is a big game, but this is a big game. They're not going to die easy.''
South Carolina's talented power play was 0-for-3 on Wednesday and has not scored on 11 chances in the series, which is a big part of why Wheeling holds its big advantage. The Stingrays aren't getting a ton of great chances, and when they do Condon is up to the task. The penalty kill has been a point of emphasis during the Nailers' extensive film study.
''It starts with the coaches, who have done a great job of preparing us,'' Minella said. ''But like I said, it's always great having Condon back there.
''He's been a huge part of that.''
Donatelli shrugs off the suggestion, instead crediting the players.
''We're blocking shots, getting in the lanes and we're clearing the puck on one-touches and getting it out, and Condo's been making some big saves,'' he said. ''Our killers are really battling out there and doing a great job.
''But we've got to stay out of the box. We're taking too many penalties in crucial situations.
''That's all a process that we're going through and hopefully we will get through it.''
With Condon in net, it may not matter.
''They're a very deep team, very skilled,'' Condon said of the Stingrays. ''They can put a lot of goals on the board very quickly.
''Hopefully we come with a great effort Friday and close them out.''