Nailers’ pursuit of Kelly Cup ends short
WHEELING – In the macho world of professional sports it usually takes something rather significant to move an athlete to tears. Wheeling Nailers forward Chaz Johnson had one of those moments Monday night inside WesBanco Arena.
The Greenville Road Warriors jumped out to a 2-0 lead just 5:22 into the game on the strength of goals 17 second apart, then got defensive en route to a 4-0 victory that won them this Kelly Cup Eastern Conference semifinal series, 4-2. Goaltender Jason Missiaen, all 6-foot-8 of him, was huge, both literally and figuratively, with 31 saves.
It didn’t take long for the suddenness of it all to kick in, particularly for Johnson.
”A team like this only comes around once in a blue moon,” said Johnson, a brute of a man at 6-1, 215 pounds, tears trickling down his cheek. ”It’s very hard, especially for a guy like myself, being a nine-year veteran and not knowing if this is it.
”It was a close group of individuals and there was no one or two guys – it was a team. I have played on a lot of teams and a team like this only comes around once in a while.”
In the end though, Greenville proved to be the better one, winning all three games played in Wheeling. The Road Warriors took the first two games at WesBanco Arena – the second in controversial fashion – and then weathered a hiccup when Wheeling won 2 of 3 in South Carolina.
The game’s first goal is always important, but maybe more so when a team is on the brink of elimination. That, like pretty much everything else on this night, went the Road Warriors’ way.
Greenville had the momentum manufactured for it, when Wheeling took a delay of game penalty 44 seconds in, and never really let off the gas until the game was no longer in doubt.
Andrew Yogan sped down the left wing past a defender, put a pretty head-and-shoulder fake on Wheeling goaltender Mike Condon and circled the net, before wrapping the puck into it at 5:05 of the first for his sixth of the playoffs. Before the Nailers could gather their bearings, Kyle Jean’s shot from the left wing was stopped by Condon, but Michael St. Croix was there to notch his fourth on the backhand.
”I think if you spot any teams in the playoffs two goals, it’s going to be tough to get back into the game,” Nailers captain Dustin Stevenson said. ”We tried everything we could but it wasn’t our night.”
From that point forward it was up to Missiaen to preserve the lead, and he rewarded his teammates and coaching staff for their confidence. Despite the start – Wheeling trailed 8-0 and 10-1 in shots – the home team still had a chance to hang around.
But first Peter Merth was denied in close as he sneaked in from the left point.
Sahir Gill was denied with a Missiaen pad stop on a good chance.
Johnson, alone in the slot, whistled one wide.
Finally, Cody Sylvester was robbed off a turnover with 55 seconds to go in a first period that saw the Nailers emerge with a 14-11 lead in shots, as Missiaen took away the 5-hole at the last second.
”If we could have got one there I think it would have been a different game,” Nailers coach Clark Donatelli said. ”He’s a good goalie and a big kid. It was his night.
”Our hat is off to Greenville and we wish them the best of luck. Our guys gave it their all and we just came up short.”
Wheeling never seriously threatened again as the Warriors went into shutdown mode. Greenville scored another two goals – a deflection by Justin Vaive in the second and a wrist shot from the right circle by Josh Nicolls in the third, but the outcome had already been decided.
”That’s a good team over there and they probably executed a little better than we did,” Gill said. ”Going down two at home to start obviously wasn’t what we wanted to do, and then we were playing catch-up pretty much the whole series.
”You look around the room at guys who battled hard all year and there’s a million thoughts that kind of go through your head.
”We feel bad. You look around and you almost feel like you let the guy next to you down.”
For Johnson, those thoughts are not going to dissipate any time soon.
”I am not going to lie. I’ve played a lot of places and I am not just saying this, but I love playing here,” he said. ”I came in here a lot of times with other teams and I didn’t like it.
”But living here and being here and being around the organization – it’s an A-1 organization. I loved it.”
So the question becomes, if there is hockey in Johnson’s future, will it be played in Wheeling?
”I definitely have to sit down and talk with my girlfriend. I’ve got three girls in the house now so we will see if they are driving me crazy sitting at home,” he joked. ”I’m 30 and I am the only guy on the team with a family. My body has a lot of miles on it, especially with how I play. I’m tired and I’m worn down.”