By Zane Miller
This is one of those wild games that I don’t feel like gets discussed enough, and I didn’t want it to be lost to time, so I figured that I should write an article covering the events of this game and what made it so special.
On Sunday, May 29th, 2016, the Wheeling Nailers faced off against the Allen Americans in the second game of the 2016 Kelly Cup Finals. As the Americans had earned home ice advantage for the first two games of the series, the game was held at the Allen Event Center in Allen, Texas.
The Wheeling Nailers got to the playoffs with a 37-35 record during the 2015-16 ECHL season, despite needing to replace their head coach midway through the season, with David Gove taking over for Clark Donatelli who was promoted to head coach of the AHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
Meanwhile, the Allen Americans took a 41-31 regular season record to qualify for the 2016 playoffs, being coached by Steve Martinson, who had been the team’s only head coach since joining the ECHL in 2014, and remains as HC of the Americans as of this writing.
The Nailers picked up a first-round victory over the Florida Everblades, winning the series four games to two, then going on to defeat the Reading Royals in the second round, in another close series four games to three. The conference finals saw the Nailers take on the South Carolina Stingrays, who were looking to reach the Finals for the second straight season, as well as avenge their loss in their previous matchup as they were denied in 2015 by the Americans, who won the championship in seven games. However, Wheeling took the conference final in seven games, setting up their matchup against Allen.
The Americans also started off their playoff run with a tight series, taking down the Idaho Steelheads four games to three in the first round. The team then went on to defeat the Missouri (now Kansas City) Mavericks, who had won the Brabham Cup for the best regular season record during the 2015-16 season at 52-20, in six games to advance to the conference finals as well. Allen took on the Fort Wayne Komets, who were looking to make their first Kelly Cup Finals appearance, but was not to be as the Americans handily took the series four games to one. With that, Allen looked to claim back-to-back championships in their series against Wheeling.
Game one of the finals saw the Americans grab the momentum early with a 5-3 win at home to score a 1-0 series lead. This brings us to the main focus of this story, with game two bringing one of the wildest afternoons in ECHL history.
The game got started at 4:05 p.m., with Brian Foster at goaltender for Wheeling and Jake Hildebrand starting in net for Allen. Foster had appeared in 22 games for the Nailers during the regular season, taking a 10-11 record with a .908 save percentage, and also had some NHL experience as well, as he appeared in one game with the Florida Panthers in the 2011-12 season. Hildebrand, on the other hand, had much less playing time during the regular season with just six appearances. However, he put up splendid numbers in his limited schedule, picking up a 5-1 record with a .925 save percentage.
Wheeling set the tone for the game early, scoring at the 6:34 mark of the first period as forward Derek Army hit the back of the net on the power play to give the Nailers a 1-0 lead. At 14:30, defenseman Clark Seymour added another goal for Wheeling, making it a 2-0 game. The scoring parade continued at 17:52, with forward Cody Wydo earning another power play tally, making it a 3-0 lead going into the second.
Following the rough first period for Allen, Hildebrand was replaced by goaltender Joel Rumpel, who had gotten far more experience during the regular season with 39 games played with a 21-15 record and .907 save percentage. However, this change did little to shift the momentum, as Wheeling picked up right where they left off courtesy of forward Anton Zlobin potting the team’s third power play goal of the game at the 6:03 mark. Continuing to take advantage of all the momentum being in their favor, forward Jarrett Burton made it 5-0 near the game’s midway point at 9:43. While the Americans would end the shutout bid at 15:16 with forward Chad Costello scoring Allen’s first goal, the four-goal deficit would be short-lived with Nailers defenseman Mathew Maione scoring at 16:27 for a 6-1 lead. However, the next goal would be where the game began to get really weird.
At the 18:23 mark of the second period, Wheeling forward Jordan Kwas was given a four-minute penalty for high sticking, prompting a fight between Kwas and Allen defenseman Rick Pinkston. While the fighting penalties offset each other, Pinkston was also assessed a two-minute penalty for roughing, cutting the original four-minute long power play for the Americans down to two minutes. Looking to take advantage of their power play chance and desperate to score quickly, the team opted to pull the goaltender for an extra attacker, which is almost never seen in the first two periods of a hockey game with the exception of delayed penalty calls.
With Allen clearly taking an aggressive approach to getting themselves back in the game, it didn’t take long for Wheeling to take advantage of the empty net, as forward John McCarron scored the shorthanded tally to make it a 7-1 lead as the teams headed into the locker rooms with 20 minutes remaining.
As the teams headed out for the third period, it originally seemed to be business as usual, although the Americans netted their second goal of the game off the stick of forward Spencer Asuchak at the 2:21 mark. Just under two minutes later, the Americans struck again as defenseman Aaron Gens made it 7-3 at the 4:20 mark. However, Wheeling still maintained a four-goal lead, which they enjoyed for about three more minutes before a power play goal courtesy of forward Gary Steffes at 7:27. 84 seconds later, Americans forward Casey Pierro-Zabotel scored at the 8:51 mark to make it a 7-5 lead for the Nailers. Just past the midway point of the third, Steffes found the back of the net for a second time, cutting the Nailers advantage in half at 10:03, as the team seemed poised to tie the game up with three goals scored in roughly two and a half minutes.
As you can imagine, Wheeling was desperate to stop the bleeding of five unanswered goals, prompting them to put goaltender Franky Palazzese in net for the remainder of the game. Palazzese had also put together a solid season with the Nailers during the regular season, claiming a 20-18 record with a .906 save percentage. While the momentum had shifted completely in favor of the Americans in the third period, the chances began to dry up for them in the second half. Still behind by one goal with 2:24 left, the Americans pulled the goaltender yet again. Just as it happened the first time in the game, the strategy did not work out for Allen as the Nailers held on to take the 7-6 victory and even the series up at 1-1. Foster took the win for Wheeling with 23 saves on 29 shots, while Rumpel was hit with the loss for the Americans as he made 12 saves on 15 chances.
While the Nailers won game two, it was Allen who would get the last laugh as they went on to take back-to-back championships, defeating Wheeling four games to two. Still, this is the only game I can think of where the winning goal was scored on a shorthanded empty net goal in the second period.
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