Nailers open season tonight in Cincinnati

No Sid the Kid? No Geno Malkin? No problem.

The ECHL dropped the puck this weekend on the 2012-13 season. Tonight (7:35) at Cincinnati’s US Bank Arena, head coach Clark Donatelli and his Wheeling Nailers begin play in a faceoff against the division rival Cyclones.

It’s the first of four consecutive road tests for Wheeling which makes its home debut Oct. 26 against Reading’s Royals.

Donatelli seems unusually upbeat regarding the season opener and why not? Four of Wheeling’s top scorers from last season are on the opening night 20-man roster.

Additionally, Pittsburgh Penguins’ AAA affiliate Scranton Wilkes-Barre assigned five players to Wheeling. “That’s five top prospects so we’re certainly excited to get the season underway,” Donatelli related before the team departed this afternoon for the Queen City.

“With the amount of returning players and some others (with AHL experience), we feel confident we’ll play well early. Basically, its a matter of developing (line) chemistry among some of our newcomers.”

Forward Chris Barton, Wheeling’s leading goal scorer (29) and point producer (60) from a year ago, is joined by center and returning captain Paul Crowder who recently rejoined Wheeling following a brief stint overseas.

“Just having Paul Crowder (in the lockerroom) is a huge bonus,” Donatelli offered. “In addition to his skill for the game, Paul is a natural leader.” Crowder connected for 23 goals and assisted on 27 others last winter.

Forward Cody Chupp (34 points in 43 games) and center Zach Torquato (12 goals, 28 assists) add to the offensive mix. “(Those) four young men played very well together last season and are obviously familiar with our system,” Donatelli described.

On the blue line, defenseman Peter Merth is back after impressiing the organization with his relentless style. “Peter posted a plus-20 (on-ice) rating which speaks volumes for his value to our team,” Donatelli described.

Two other skaters who logged valuable minutes here last season are forward Ben Farrer and center Cam Fergus.

Between the pipes, Wheeling welcomes back veteran Patrick Killeen who came up big in numerous starts last season. In his third season with the club, Killeen owns a 38-28-6 ledger.

“Patrick has enjoyed his time here and is determined to have another solid season in goal,” Donatelli stated. Killeen’s backup is 6-6 Scott Darling who played a majority of the 2011-12 season with Mississippi’s River Kings of the Southern Professional Hockey League. Darling logged time in one ECHL game with the Florida Riverblades.

From the Baby Penguins, Wheeling has the early-season services of forwards Tom Kuhnhackl, Adam Payerl, Dominik Uher, Scott Zurevinski and Bobby Farnham.

Hamilton’s Bulldogs (AHL) has shipped four players to Wheeling and the Nailers made a late roster addition Friday, signing forward Alex Belzile. The Hamilton additions include Ian Schultz, Daultan Leveille, Philippe Lefebvre and Stefan Chaput. The late additions increases Wheeling’s roster to 23, three of whom will be scratched prior to tonight’s faceoff.

Donatelli insists his club is unfazed by opening the season with four road games. “Not a concern at all,” he stated. “This game is about 60 minutes of execution regardless the venue.”

Aiding Donatelli behind the bench this season is Zach Sonnefeld. “Zach possesses a wealth of knowledge for the game. He’s a great asset for our hockey club,” Wheeling’s coach reported.

Donatelli says the ongoing (NHL) lockout, should benefit Wheeling at the box office. “Hopefully, some new fans discover hockey in Wheeling this season,” he started. “Far as I’m concerned ($7.50) for a ticket will be the best show in town.”

Gibson may be reached at