WHEELING - It was evident pretty early Wednesday night that it was going to take an extraordinary effort to beat Kalamazoo goaltender Joel Martin. The pucks that weren't finding their way into his pads somehow, whether it be off the post or a defenseman's stick, managed to stay out of the back of his net.
But in one fell swoop, and perhaps there was no better example of the Wheeling Nailers' never-say-die attitude on this night, Zack Torquato flipped the script inside WesBanco Arena.
Torquato broke in on Martin shorthanded and was hooked down, but sliding on his back Torquato somehow managed to sweep the puck into the net for the tying goal - his eighth of the season - at the 13:54 mark of the third period. He then added the winner in the shootout as the Nailers (29-26-11 - 69) kept their slim playoff hopes alive with a 2-1 victory against the Wings (32-28-6- 70).
WHEELING’S Peter Lenes shoots the puck on net during Wednesday’s game against Kalamazoo at WesBanco Arena. The Nailers won in a shootout to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Unbeknownst to Torquato and his teammates, Toledo had already won prior to their own game heading to the shootout. Had the Nailers come up on the short end, the Walleye would have clinched the final spot in the Eastern Conference. As it stands, a single loss in their final six games will result in elimination from the postseason. The Nailers must win out and hope Toledo loses two of its next four, resulting in a winner-take-all matchup at WesBanco Arena on the season's final day.
''If nobody else believes we definitely do, and that's all that matters,'' Torquato said. ''We've got a great group of guys and I would love nothing more than to win with these guys and make the playoffs.''
Torquato's equalizer was the result of some quick thinking on his part.
''(Matt) Germain had a good forecheck on the play and I read that it was a forward back on defense, so he might have been a little shaky,'' Torquato recalled. ''He coughed up the puck and as I was falling and I shoveled it to the net and it went in.''
It then came down to a battle of the goaltenders, and Wheeling's Scott Darling edged Martin, who had stopped 38 of 42 shootout attempts coming in. Darling turned aside 21 and four of the five K-Zoo chances, while Keven Veilleux, who had a monster night with a game-high six shots, also got the puck past Martin.
''For me personally, I was pretty upset I let in a bad goal,'' Darling said of Joe Charlebois' third of the season at 13:25 of the first.
That mistake loomed large since the Nailers were throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Martin, who made 33 straight saves before finally being beaten.
''I saw that happening and Joel Martin's a great goalie,'' Darling said. ''He's having a great season and has had 40-save shutouts this year.
''We got a couple unfortunate bounces but I knew if we just kept going we would get one.
''I finally got a shootout win and I was pretty happy about that.''
Wheeling hopes to provide Toledo with an uneasy feeling when it heads to Trenton for a pair of games Friday and Saturday night. The Walleye are at Kalamazoo on Friday, then play host to Eastern Conference-leading Reading on Saturday and Sunday.
''Some of those guys have always been in the playoffs and they don't know what it's like not to be in the playoffs,'' Nailers coach Clark Donatelli said. ''They're working hard and really believe they can do it.
''We've just got to keep winning and we'll see what happens.''
Still, just one loss puts an end to it all.
''Right now we're just focusing on Trenton,'' Torquato said. ''So we'll go in there and hopefully keep rolling.
''You can't look at the big picture right now because you don't want to lose focus on the game we have.''
Kalamazoo1 0 0 0 - 1
Wheeling0 0 1 0- 2
1st Period-1, Kalamazoo, Charlebois 3 (Karlander, Shelast), 13:25. Penalties-No Penalties
2nd Period- No Scoring.Penalties-Corcoran Whl (delay of game), 6:31.
3rd Period-2, Wheeling, Torquato 8 13:54 (SH). Penalties-Orlando Whl (roughing), 12:55.
OT Period- No Scoring.Penalties-No Penalties
Shootout - Kalamazoo 1 (Sirota NG, Grenier G, Mallet NG, Armstrong NG, Lysak NG), Wheeling 2 (Crowder NG, Veilleux G, Barton NG, Torquato G, Lenes NG).
Shots on Goal-Kalamazoo 10-3-9-0-0-22. Wheeling 12-14-10-1-1-38.
Power-Play Opportunities-Kalamazoo 0-2; Wheeling 0-0.
Goalies-Kalamazoo, Martin 29-23-4-2 (37 shots-36 saves). Wheeling, Darling 11-11-1-2 (22 shots-21 saves).
Referee-Marc-Andre Lavoie (9); Linesmen-Brian Oliver (36), Ryan Daisy (64).