Nailers ready for dates with the Devils
Nailers forward Casey Pierro-Zabotel skates against the Devils at the War Memorial earlier this season. (Chad Mearns)
The North Division-leading Nailers will take on the Trenton Devils Friday at the War Memorial, marking the first of five times the teams will face off during the next nine days — including three consecutive games beginning Jan. 21.
So naturally, if it looks like a playoff series, Nailers coach Stan Drulia intends to approach it like one.
"We're going to be seeing (Trenton) quite a bit, so we put a spin on it and make it a best-of-three series to make it a bit of preparation for the playoffs.
For Drulia and his 19-14-2 Nailers, the post-season seems to be a likely possibility -- thanks in part to their mastery over the Devils, last in the Eastern Conference as of Jan. 14, through the first four contests between the teams this year.
The Nailers are 4-1 against Trenton, including a 4-1 road victory Jan. 12. The only hiccup came in November, when the Devils beat the Nailers 5-3 in Johnstown.
But much has changed for the Nailers since November, as the inevitable string of injuries and AHL call-ups have shifted the look of Wheeling's roster.
Key players such as David Marshall and Andrew Lord have been in the AHL since Thanskgiving and Christmas, respectively, and an injury will keep goaltender Mattias Modig out of the net for the rest of the season.
"It's been a bit crazy here trying to fill all these voids," Drulia said.
But Drulia and his team have responded, going 4-4 since Christmas, roughly the time the call-ups and injuries began to mount.
Drulia credited the forward line of Casey Pierro-Zabotel, Nick Petersen and Ben Street with successfully shouldering much of the load. Although the line has since been broken up, the three ranked as the team's top scorers last week.
"We've had contributions from everybody, but those three guys really got us going" Drulia said.
Even more improvement could be on the horizon, as several key players are beginning to re-emerge on Wheeling's roster.
Defenseman David Urquhart was returned to the team last week after a 13-game stint with the AHL's Hamilton Bulldogs. Urquhart had registered six points and 15 penalty minutes in 17 games previously with Wheeling.
Street also returned following a brief three-game stay with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
Also expected to return in time for the dates with the Devils is forward Kris Vernarsky, who has been out with an injury since early January.
Vernarsky's return should provide a boost for the Nailers, who have outscored Trenton 21-13 so far this year. But Drulia expects the coming five-game stretch with Trenton — interrupted only by a Jan. 28 contest at Elmira — to be a battle.
"They're a skilled team. They've got some forwards in front who like to buzz around the net, and they're bigger (on defense)," he said. "Both teams are going to be able to prepare for each other a little."
The Nailers take on the Devils. Jan. 21 at the Cambria County War Memorial. The night includes a $1 hot dog promotion. The teams will also play in Johnstown Jan. 30, followed by a post-game skate with the Nailers. Tickets for both games begin at $12, or $5.50 for kids. For tickets, call 536-5156.