BY MIKE MASTOVICH
No Chiefs lead has been safe at Cambria County War Memorial Arena this ECHL season.
The disturbing trend continued on Friday night in front of 3,070 fans.
For the third straight home game, Johnstown blew a lead, this time allowing Wheeling a pair of goals in the final 9:30 of regulation and one in overtime in a 4-3 setback.
The Chiefs have managed at least a point in those three home games – including Wednesday’s 6-4 win over Reading after the Royals overcame a 4-1 deficit to tie it – and Johnstown has secured one or more points in the past four games overall.
“I think at the end we needed a little more guts to pull it out,” Chiefs coach Jeff Flanagan said of his 2-6-3-0 team. “Give it to Wheeling. They worked hard. They were not in the game when we started. They worked and worked and worked and got back in the game. We just came up short.”
The teams traded goals in the first 90 seconds of play.
Wheeling’s Thomas Beauregard beat Shane Connelly from inside the left-wing circle at 1:20.
Only nine seconds later, Johnstown’s Moises Gutierrez netted his first since the Chiefs signed him on Nov. 4. Connor Shields set up the back-handed tap-in.
Johnstown established a two-goal advantage in the middle period. Troy Schwab converted a power play with a beautiful backhanded shot from the right side that hit the top corner inside the far post at 11:37.
Less than two minutes later, Russ Sinkewich scored after Jarrett Konkle slid a pass between a Wheeling player’s skates directly to Jim McKenzie, whose shot was blocked to Sinkewich.
Sinkewich scored a goal for the first time since the 2004-05 season when he played for the USHL Lincoln Stars.
“Sinker played really well for the first two and a half periods,” Flanagan said. “He’s a young guy. He did what I asked him to do. The defense jumped in the play like that and it paid off.”
Former Chiefs forward Blair Yaworski pulled the Nailers within 3-2 at 10:30 of the final period, and the Nailers tied it with 1:59 left on Casey Pierro-Zabotel’s shot that Connelly initially stopped before the puck trickled just across the goal line inside the post.
Wheeling’s Joey Haddad scored with 52 seconds left in overtime.
Connelly finished with
30 saves. Former ECHL Goaltender of the Year Adam Berkhoel of Wheeling had 22 stops as Pittsburgh Penguins goaltending coach Gilles Meloche watched from the auxiliary press box. The Nailers and Penguins are affiliated.
“Shane is playing well in a tough situation,” Flanagan said of his rookie goalie from the University of Wisconsin. “He wasn’t expecting to be in this many games this early.”
Flanagan said he will start former ECHL all-star goalie Kris Mayotte tonight in Wheeling.
Despite the setback, Flanagan saw more positives as the Chiefs continue to climb out of a hole created by a seven-game winless streak to start the season.
“Our forwards were fantastic and did everything exactly as I asked them to do at the right times and the right places,” Flanagan said.
“They played hard down low. They scored goals. Some of our defensemen played really well, guys who had been struggling of late.”
Notes: The ECHL suspended Reading’s Olivier Labelle one game for his involvement in the play that led to Chiefs captain Mike Knight crashing head-first into the boards on Wednesday night. Knight was hospitalized after the play. Knight remained hospitalized on Friday, but Chiefs GM Bill Bredin said he expects him to be released today.