The Wheeling Nailers' match-up with the Kalamazoo Wings at the Cambria County War Memorial March 11 will be a crucial opportunity for the Nailers to gain ground on the team that has surged to overtake them for the North Division lead.
"They're rolling. They're playing great hockey. They have a full line-up and they're going in the right direction," Nailers coach Stan Drulia said of the Wings.
The same, though, can't be said for his own club.
As of March 3, the Nailers were in the midst of a 10-game losing stretch. The team last won Feb. 4, roughly the same time injuries began to mount across the Pittsburgh Penguins organization.
The resulting call-ups have taken a toll on the Penguins' ECHL affiliate, leading to more than 300 man-games lost this season.
"This is crazy, even for our level," Drulia said.
Top scorers Ben Street, Nick Peterson and Andrew Lord have graduated to the AHL, while others such as David Marshall and Casey Pierro-Zabotel were traded away, leaving the team short on experienced forwards during a losing streak that had reached 10 games as of March 3.
In that span, Drulia has relied heavily on his role players, even playing defensemen at forward at times.
"We have good character guys, guys who compete," he said. "But you can't carry a team with just your role players. When you are lacking those elite guys we had in January — Street, Peterson, Marshall, Lord — it's tough to replace them in February or March."
But Drulia has brought in several new faces in an attempt to do just that. Brothers Tim and Paul Crowder were acquired from the Utah Grizzlies for Marshall last week. In 55 games with Utah, Tim Crowder had scored 13 goals, while older brother Paul has netted six goals in 21 ECHL games this season — including his first as a Nailer on March 2.
"They did a real nice job after traveling all the way across the country," Drulia said. "They're big bodies, two guys we can play in our top six."
Defenseman Alex Grant also returned from a pre-season arm injury Drulia called "one of the worst things I've ever seen."
Grant, a 2007 fourth-round pick of the Penguins, sustained several breaks in his arm after being hit from behind on the first day of developmental camp. He returned to the line-up Feb. 18, contributing a goal and an assist in his first five games.
"He's a guy who is still in training camp mode. His conditioning isn't where it needs to be in March."
Drulia's problem of indoctrinating so many new players into his system was compounded by a relentless February schedule that took the team to a different city every night for nine straight games.
The stretch left the team with virtually no on-ice practice time to familiarize the new players with their assignments, Drulia said.
"You're trying to do it through the white board and through video. We watched a lot more video in February than in the previous few months."
With a four-day layoff before the Wings come to Johnstown, however, Drulia is hoping the extra practice will put his team in a position to maintain their playoff spot and possibly regain the North Division lead.
"Time is very important right now. We can't afford to keep losing."
Revamped Nailers hope to gain ground at War Memorial
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