WHEELING,W.Va. (WTRF) –

WHEELING NAILERS
3rd Place in Central Division
Record: 37-31-4-0
Points: 78
Goals For: 243 (T-5th)
Goals Against: 247 (21st)
Power Play: 61-for-304, 20.1% (7th)
Penalty Kill: 216-for-276, 78.3% (22nd)

FORT WAYNE KOMETS
2nd Place in Central Division
Record: 40-25-6-1
Points: 87
Goals For: 267 (3rd)
Goals Against: 225 (T-10th)
Power Play: 58-for-268, 21.6% (T-5th)
Penalty Kill: 238-for-292, 81.5% (12th)

Head-to-Head
2021-22 Regular Season: Komets 7, Nailers 3
2021-22 Regular Season at WHL: Nailers 3, Komets 2
2021-22 Regular Season at FW: Komets 5, Nailers 0
All-Time Regular Season: Komets 42, Nailers 26
All-Time Regular Season at WHL: Nailers 18, Komets 14
All-Time Regular Season at FW: Komets 28, Nailers 8
All-Time Playoff Series: First Ever Series

Goaltending
Wheeling: D’Orio, Guindon, Weeks
Fort Wayne: Harvey, Papirny

The province of Québec is well represented in the crease, as three of the four goaltenders on the two rosters hail from there. Both teams know who will be getting the starting nods in the series opener on Friday night, as Louis-Philip Guindon and Samuel Harvey have earned the number one roles on their respective clubs. Guindon played an enormous part in helping the Nailers reach the postseason, as he played in 12 of the final 14 games, and went 5-1-1 in April. Harvey finished tied for second in the ECHL with 23 wins, and his .916 save percentage ranked tied for sixth. The two netminders took similar paths to get to the professional ranks, as both won a championship in the QMJHL, then went on to play U Sports. Guindon won his title with Rimouski, before attending McGill University, while Harvey collected his ring with Rouyn-Noranda, before attending the University of New Brunswick. Both goalies also saw AHL time this season, as Louis-Philip played for the Laval Rocket, and Samuel played for the San Jose Barracuda. Wheeling’s Alex D’Orio is currently with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, so the Nailers signed Mitchell Weeks to an amateur tryout, while Fort Wayne’s Jordan Papirny played his lone two games during the penultimate week of the season. This is D’Orio’s third pro season, and it will be his first taste of the playoffs, and Weeks just completed his junior career with the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves.

Defense
Wheeling: Bafia, Drake, Foley, Hanson, MacPherson, Maniscalco, Ortiz, Smith
Fort Wayne: Brubacher, Corrin, Masonius, McIvor, Siebenaler, Tolkinen

The defenseman who has gained the most recognition for his season is Wheeling’s Josh Maniscalco, who earned selections to the All-ECHL 2nd Team, ECHL All-Rookie Team, and was runner-up for ECHL Rookie of the Year, after leading all first year blueliners with 53 points. Fellow rookie Chris Ortiz also had a big year offensively for the Nailers, as he collected 38 points. Adam Smith anchored the defense for the majority of the season, but now he has his most consistent supporting cast, as Dylan MacPherson, Matt Foley, and David Drake all took the ice together for the first time this season on April 9th. Six of the eight defensemen on Wheeling’s playoff roster saw AHL action this year. Former Nailer Zach Tolkinen was one of two Komets to earn iron man status in 2021-22, as he played in all 72 games this season. Wheeling fans are also familiar with Fort Wayne native Blake Siebenaler, who played in parts of two seasons in Nail City, but now finds himself on the other side of the rivalry. Those two and Marcus McIvor are the only three members of the Komets blueline who signed with the team during the offseason, as Fort Wayne added key pieces as the season went along. Willie Corrin amassed 28 points in 33 games after being acquired from Kansas City, then the Komets received Joe Masonius from the AHL’s Utica Comets and Adam Brubacher from the AHL’s Abbotsford Canucks.

Offense
Wheeling: Almeida, Boomhower, Cockrell, Desruisseaux, Doherty, Drevitch, Hampton, Hausinger, Houde, Josling, Paré, Quercia, Watling
Fort Wayne: Alvaro, Busch, Cooper, Graber, C. Jones, K. Jones, Kennedy, Martel, McCallum, Petruzzelli, Pochiro, Rassell, Szydlowski

Two top-five offenses clash in this series, as the Komets finished third in the ECHL with 267 goals, while the Nailers ended up tied for fifth with 243. Leading the way were a pair of All-ECHL 1st Team members, as Fort Wayne’s Will Graber finished as the top scorer in the ECHL with 83 points, while Patrick Watling became the first Wheeling player since 2008-09 to score more than 70 points in a season, as he finished fourth in the league with 77 points. Two other players on each side reached the 20-goal mark. For the Nailers, Justin Almeida had his best pro season with 28 goals, 35 assists, and 63 points, while rookie Cam Hausinger burst onto the scene with 21 goals, 22 assists, and 43 points. Iron man Anthony Petruzzelli was the leading goal scorer for the Komets, as he netted 27, to go along with 30 assists, while rookie Matt Alvaro had the exact same numbers as Hausinger, while playing in one more game. Wheeling’s Sam Houde and Fort Wayne’s Zach Pochiro are two other dangerous offensive players, as Houde posted a six-point game and a five-point game, while Pochiro came onto the scene in January and quickly snagged 43 points. Both averaged over one point per game. The two sides are plenty deep up front, as both teams named 13 forwards to their playoff rosters.

AHL Eligibles
Wheeling: Alfaro, Almari, Hutchison, Nappier
Fort Wayne: Boudens, Corcoran, Harper, Kielb, Murphy, Patera, Rymsha

In case the two squads weren’t lethal enough, there is the possibility for more additions as the postseason rolls along. The Nailers have one roster spot open, which could belong to one of four players. The Manitoba Moose and Abbotsford Heat have already qualified for the playoffs, while the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins are on the verge of punching their ticket, so Wheeling may not fill that slot until early May. Matt Alfaro and Nick Hutchison appear to be the top two candidates, and either would be a key piece at center, as the two combined for 62 points in 51 games. The Komets have three spots open, and there are seven players from five different AHL teams listed as possibilities. 2021 Kelly Cup Playoff MVP Stephen Harper is the only one of the seven who won’t go to the Calder Cup Playoffs, as his Tucson Roadrunners have already been eliminated. With only six defensemen named to the initial roster, it is very possible that Fort Wayne could add a blueliner at some point. Connor Corcoran would likely be the top choice out of that group, as he was one of two ECHL defensemen to score 20 goals, and he did so in only 41 games. He is currently with the Henderson Silver Knights, as is Matthew Boudens, who began the season as the captain for the Komets, and Jiri Patera, who was the starting netminder on opening night. Forward Drake Rymsha is in Hershey and defenseman Matt Murphy is in Abbotsford. Rymsha posted 18 points in 11 games with Fort Wayne, and could also be a favorable selection.

Special Teams
Wheeling: PP- 20.1%, 7th. PK- 78.3%, 22nd.
Fort Wayne: PP- 21.6%, T-5th. PK- 81.5%, 12th.

With two elite offenses come two highly potent power plays, as Wheeling and Fort Wayne both finished the season in the league’s top ten. Interestingly enough, both clubs had better success with the man advantage on enemy ice, as the Nailers scored a league-leading 36 road power play goals, while the Komets tallied 32 outside of the jungle. Wheeling’s Justin Almeida led all players with 11 power play goals, while Josh Maniscalco of the Nailers and Will Graber of the Komets both accumulated 23 points with an opponent in the penalty box. While Fort Wayne finished with a higher penalty killing percentage, there is an even bigger piece of that puzzle to keep an eye on – shorthanded goals. The Komets turned the tables on their opposition with 18 shorthanded goals, led by Oliver Cooper’s five and Anthony Petruzzelli’s four. Maniscalco figured into the scoring on three of Wheeling’s five shorthanded strikes, but the Nailers surrendered 15 shorties to their opponents.

Toughness
Wheeling: 45 fighting majors, T-3rd
Fort Wayne: 39 fighting majors, T-5th

It took some time to get this rivalry rolling, as the Nailers and Komets have only played in the same division in four of ten seasons since Fort Wayne joined the ECHL in 2012. However, since last February, the teams have played each other an astonishing 30 times (yes, you read that right), so there’s bound to be some animosity. Gone are the days of the shenanigans at the end of warmups, but after three fights in the regular season finale, it’s clear that neither side is ready to get pushed around. Fort Wayne and Wheeling finished third and fourth respectively in penalty minutes, but oddly enough, if you subtract the 99 penalty minutes from Saturday, the season series was actually on the mild side, as the first nine meetings saw an average of 27 penalty minutes per game and only two fights. Cam Hausinger’s eight fighting majors are the most on either team, and he is one of five players on the rosters to reach the 100-penalty minute mark.

Coaching
Wheeling: HC- Derek Army (2nd Season, 43-46-5), AC- Ryan Kuwabara (1st Season)
Fort Wayne: HC- Ben Boudreau (3rd Season, 100-65-20), AC- Olivier Legault (6th Season)

The head coaching match-up in this series features two gentlemen who are at the very beginning of what should be long careers, and both have enjoyed quick success. Derek Army took over late last season as Wheeling’s interim head coach, then got promoted to full-time head coach before the final weekend of the season. This season, he helped orchestrate a 27-point turnaround, as the Nailers returned to the Kelly Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2015-16, when he was a player on the team. Ben Boudreau was an assistant coach for Fort Wayne for two seasons, before being promoted to head coach in 2019. The Komets have made the playoffs in all four of his full seasons with the club, and in 2020-21, he helped lead them to their first ECHL Championship. Both individuals come from coaching backgrounds, as Derek’s father Tim has been a coach since 1988 in the NHL, AHL, and NCAA, while Ben’s father Bruce got his coaching career started in 1992. Derek Army is 31 and Ben Boudreau is 37. Wheeling Assistant Coach Ryan Kuwabara is in his first season as a professional coach in North America, after spending the last three seasons in the Ontario Hockey League. Fort Wayne Assistant Coach Olivier Legault holds his role for the sixth season. Army, Kuwabara, and Legault all played for the team they are now coaching.

Experience
Wheeling: 1,997 North American professional games (0 prior Kelly Cup Champions)
Fort Wayne: 3,400 North American professional games (6 prior Kelly Cup Champions)

The gap between these numbers certainly looks large, and one of the major causes for the separation is veterans (260 pro games or more). Fort Wayne has four veterans on its roster, as Shawn Szydlowski (607), Zach Tolkinen (450), Connor Jones (373), and Kellen Jones (330) combine for over half of the games (1,760) the Komets have on their roster. Zach Pochiro (284) will become a veteran next season, while Anthony Petruzzelli (255) and Blake Siebenaler (244) are both a year away. The Nailers don’t have any veterans on this year’s squad, and none of these players will become one next year, as the closest is Patrick Watling at 243. In fact, there are only five other Wheeling players (David Drake- 190, Adam Smith- 170, Dylan MacPherson- 122, Justin Almeida- 117, Sean Josling- 101) who have cracked triple digits. One of the more remarkable notes about this series is how new it will be for most of the clubs. Fort Wayne has just six players on its opening roster who won the Kelly Cup last year – Oliver Cooper, Marcus McIvor, Anthony Petruzzelli, Zach Pochiro, Blake Siebenaler, and Shawn Szydlowski. On the other side of the ice, the Nailers have just four players on their opening roster who have played in the playoffs at the professional level – Luke Bafia, Shaw Boomhower, David Drake, and Patrick Watling.

Arenas
Wheeling: WesBanco Arena (opened in 1977)
Fort Wayne: Allen County War Memorial Coliseum (opened in 1952)

Two buildings with tons of history and character, as well as some unique features, will get to welcome these hungry hockey teams to their ice surfaces for this series. Wheeling’s WesBanco Arena has the loudest goal horn in the ECHL, but the biggest on-ice adjustment for the players comes from its tiny neutral zone. A standard ice sheet is 200-feet long, but WesBanco Arena checks in at 185. Believe it or not, Wheeling’s neutral zone used to be even smaller prior to the installation of new boards and glass in 2017, when the goal line returned to its normal location. Fort Wayne’s Allen County War Memorial Coliseum is the largest arena in the Central Division, as it holds 10,480 fans for Komets games. The biggest on-ice note note in that building is that the benches are located across from each other, but on the same side of the red line, meaning the visiting team has the long line change in the first and third periods, as opposed to the usual second period scenario. Both teams enjoyed their home ice advantages this season, as the Nailers went 19-15-2, while the Komets were 25-9-2. Home teams were 8-2-0 in the season series.

Central Division Semifinal
Wheeling Nailers vs. Fort Wayne Komets
Game 1 – Fri. Apr. 22nd at Fort Wayne, 8:00
Game 2 – Sat. Apr. 23rd at Fort Wayne, 7:30
Game 3 – Wed. Apr. 27th AT WHEELING, 7:10
Game 4 – Fri. Apr. 29th AT WHEELING, 7:10
Game 5 – Sat. Apr. 30th AT WHEELING, 7:10 (if necessary)

Game 6 – Mon. May 2nd at Fort Wayne, 7:30 (if necessary)
Game 7 – Tue. May 3rd at Fort Wayne, 7:30 (if necessary)