The 25th season of hockey in Wheeling saw the Nailers post their ninth consecutive winning campaign, as well as a 20-win season on home ice for the sixth time in the last seven years. Unfortunately, game 72 turned out to be the final contest of the season, as Wheeling missed out on qualifying for the playoffs for just the second time in the last seven years. The Nailers collected a 34-30-8 record, which was good for 76 points, while recording the second largest attendance in the last seven years, at 95,419.
2016-17 saw 43 different players suit up in uniform for first year head coach Jeff Christian, with 12 of the 43 having played in Wheeling during at least one prior season. Andrew Ammon, Derek Army, Jarrett Burton, Danny Fick, Jordan Kwas, Kevin Schulze, Brett Stern, and Cody Wydo were the eight remaining players from the 2015-16 squad, which captured the hearts of hockey fans in the Ohio Valley, as the Nailers earned the title of Eastern Conference Champions. Adding to that mix at the beginning of the year were experienced players from around the ECHL and AHL, such as Doug Carr, Garrett Meurs, and Nick Sorkin, in addition to rookies such as Christian Hilbrich, Ross McMullan, Gage Quinney, Ryan Segalla, and Michael Webster. All eight of those players were with the team either through the last game of the year, or until a few tilts remained, and they were brought up to the AHL.
Wheeling continues to be one of the top developmental teams in the ECHL, and this season, 16 players earned the opportunity to play at the AHL level. Derek Army began the campaign with an ECHL contract, but ended up appearing in 36 games with the Milwaukee Admirals, tallying 12 points. Jarrett Burton also appeared in 36 AHL games, all with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, notching a ten-point year. After almost two full seasons with the Nailers, Danny Fick and Cody Wydo were both rewarded with their first promotions to the AHL, with Wydo potting a goal in his second game as a member of the Baby Pens. Additionally, two former Nailers saw dreams come true, as Carter Rowney and Jean-Sebastien Dea became the 60th and 61st Wheeling alums to reach the National Hockey League. Both players debuted with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Rowney ended up playing in 27 games, registering three goals, four assists, and seven points. Six former Nailer players and one former Nailer head coach are participating in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, as Wheeling is hoping to have an alumni on Lord Stanley for the third year in a row.
Opening Night of the 25th season came with loads of excitement. Alumni such as Wheeling Thunderbirds Head Coach Doug Sauter were on hand for a celebration of history, while the 2016 Eastern Conference Championship banner was raised to the rafters at WesBanco Arena. The first of three sellout crowds in 2016-17 rose to its feet at the 9:13 mark of the second period to cheer the first goal of the year by Josh Shalla, then again at the 1:35 mark of the third period, when Darryl Lloyd lit the lamp. Despite earning a point in the first game of the season, former Nailer Luke Pither rained on the parade a tad, scoring the winning goal in overtime for the Brampton Beast.
The first victory of 2016-17 took place in game four at Wings Event Center in Kalamazoo. The Nailers had the Wings' number for most of the year, winning seven of the ten head-to-head battles. Doug Carr and Joel Martin stood on their respective heads in this clash, as both netminders denied over 40 shots from the opposition. A 2-2 tie needed to be settled in a shootout - the only shootout that Wheeling participated in all season. Ross McMullan pounded home a shot in round six to give the Nailers a "skate-off" victory. The two teams traveled to West Virginia after that game for a re-match the following night, and Wheeling fed off of the previous evening's heroics, scoring seven unanswered goals in an 8-1 thrashing of Kalamazoo. Josh Shalla scored the first of seven hat tricks for the club this season, as part of a five-point night, while Kevin Schulze netted the first of his 13 goals from the blueline.
Goals came in large bunches for this year's team, whose 244 tallies were the fourth most in the last 19 seasons in Wheeling. The Nailers reached five goals in a game on 20 different occasions this season, including five games with six goals, a couple of seven-goal outings, the eight-goal game against Kalamazoo, and a 9-2 blasting of Norfolk on January 20th. Wheeling ended up finishing at least one game with every goal total from 0-9.
As the season continued, November featured the first of two winning streaks of at least five games. The Nailers got beaten down 6-1 on home ice by Toledo, but exacted their revenge 24 hours later, by erasing a 2-0 deficit at Huntington Center with five straight goals. Two goals from Nick Sorkin and a 24-save shutout by JP Anderson completed the 3-in-3 weekend, as Wheeling clipped Kalamazoo for the third time in a row. The last three wins of the streak all came against divisional opponents. Reading paid a visit on Military Appreciation Night, and lost sight of the camouflaged Nailers, who were victorious, 4-1. Wheeling then booted Brampton 5-2 on the road, before returning home for a 6-5 slugfest against the Beast in front of sellout crowd number two, 5,182, on Education Day.
Special jerseys provided special results for the 2016-17 Nailers, starting with the Military Appreciation Night triumph over Reading. During the first weekend of December, Wheeling swept two games from the Utah Grizzlies, winning 5-4 in dramatic comeback fashion in the series opener, before a more convincing 4-1 final score was knocked out of the park on Pittsburgh Pirates Night. The latter of the two matches featured a pair of goals in the opening minute of periods, including Ross McMullan's first career tally. On December 16th, the Nailers debuted their 25th season alternate jerseys, and promptly delivered a performance that reminded fans of the offensive powerhouse from year one. Wheeling trailed the Fort Wayne Komets, 4-0, before scoring six times in a span of 26 minutes to pull ahead, 6-5. Adam Krause netted the tying goal with 2:34 left in regulation, then banked in the winning marker 18 seconds after that, completing the team's second hat trick of the year. That was the first of five straight home wins for the Nailers, who also donned a special jersey to close out December. Wheeling Thunderbirds throwbacks produced a winner for the second straight season, as a crowd of 3,511 rooted on a 5-2 victory against the Elmira Jackals on New Year's Eve.
The 2016-17 Brabham Cup Champions were the Toledo Walleye, but in January, Wheeling gave the fish all they could handle, winning three out of four games, scoring at least five times in each of the three triumphs. Sean Maguire backstopped his first career shutout in the opening tilt - a 6-0 thumping at WesBanco Arena. Five days later, the Nailers knocked off Toledo, 5-2, and two weeks after that was the most dramatic of wins, as Wheeling rallied from two separate two-goal deficits. Kevin Schulze scored to force overtime with 19 seconds left, and with under a minute to go in the extra session, Christian Hilbrich poked home the winning goal in a 7-6 decision. The latter of the collisions came during the team's season-long six-game winning streak, which began with a Hilbrich hat trick in a 5-2 victory at Kalamazoo. The offense exploded for 32 goals in the six wins, concluding with Maguire's second shutout of the month in a 4-0 blanking of Brampton on January 28th. Sean went 6-1-1 to earn ECHL Goaltender of the Month honors.
Injuries and callups began to take their tolls in February, as the Nailers played with a shortened bench during their three games in Idaho, as well as in the first game back at home. Wheeling battled the adversity to a 2-2-0 record, as it earned points in 11 of 14 games. The highlight of the first ever visit to Boise was a three-goal first period and a 26-save shutout by Doug Carr in the middle contest, which the Nailers won, 3-0. Two of the other three February wins came against frequent victim Kalamazoo, including a 5-4 thriller at home, which saw Danny Fick net the game winner with 3:12 remaining. Prior to that, Wheeling knocked off Brampton, 6-3, chasing 25-game winner and former NHL draft pick Zachary Fucale with three goals on eight shots.
The end of February and beginning of March were incredibly challenging, as not only did the Nailers have to play seven straight games on the road, but six of those battles took place against teams who were on their way to the Kelly Cup Playoffs. Despite having leads in six of the seven, Wheeling went 1-5-1 on the journey. The lone victory came on March 3rd, when Cody Wydo roofed a shot at the 2:52 mark of overtime, lifting the Nailers over the Indy Fuel, 3-2. That was one of seven game winning goals on the year for Wydo, who has made a habit of scoring big goals at clutch times. One week later, when the team returned to the friendly confines of WesBanco Arena, a crowd of 4,007 was treated to a sight it had seen only once before in 25 years. With the score deadlocked 1-1 against the Quad City Mallards, Johnny Daniels had the most memorable minute of his career, as he scored a natural hat trick in 57 seconds, putting Wheeling ahead 4-1 in a game it ultimately took, 6-4 on two Tyler Currier goals in the third period.
With four weeks left in the season, the most important road trip of the year sent the Nailers to see the two New York squads - Elmira and Adirondack. Gage Quinney got the week started in style, as his hat trick keyed a four-goal third period in a 5-4 nailbiting win over the Jackals. Two nights later, Matias Cleland and Riley Bourbonnais both scored their first career goals, as Wheeling topped the Thunder, 5-2. The Nailers earned a point in each of the last two games of the voyage, but both resulted in overtime setbacks, 5-4 to Adirondack and 6-5 to Elmira. Wheeling continued to battle toward the playoffs during its final homestand of the year, which was five games long against Idaho, Brampton, and Reading. Daniel Leavens burst onto the scene with a goal in his pro debut on March 22nd, and a two-goal game on March 31st, both of which resulted in victories. Unfortunately, the other three games went the other way, including a 5-3 setback to the Royals on April 2nd, which officially eliminated the group from postseason contention.
Knowing that April 7th would be the last time to see the home fans in 2016-17, the Nailers put together one more memorable outing, as 4,314 fans enjoyed a 21st victory at WesBanco Arena. Christian Hilbrich opened the scoring 42 seconds into the game, and the offense was off and running. Garrett Meurs collected his 25th goal of the season, and Riley Bourbonnais notched a hat trick, scoring the final marker with 11 seconds showing on the clock. Wheeling crushed Kalamazoo, 7-2. The Nailers fell to the Wings 5-2 the following night in Southwest Michigan, with the last goal of the year going to Tyler Currier, giving him back-to-back 20-goal campaigns.
The Nailers finish year 25 with an all-time record of 889-724-159, meaning the 900th win in team history will be part of next season's fun, and the 2,000th point in team history should also be achieved, as that milestone sits 63 points away.
The entire Wheeling Nailers organization would like to thank everyone for their tremendous support this season, and look forward to another exciting season, when the puck hits the ice in October.
Stay tuned to wheelingnailers.com, the Nailers app, and social media networks for all of the latest information throughout the summer, as the team prepares for the 2017-18 season. To purchase season tickets, or to receive more information, call the Nailers at (304) 234-GOAL.