Three former Cornell Big Red men's hockey team captains have suited up for the Nailers over the past four seasons.
The first was forward John McCarron, in 2015-16. He was an integral part of the Nailers' run to the 2016 Kelly Cup Final, registering 23 points in 25 postseason games.
Next came Christian Hilbrich in 2016-17. The massive 6-feet-7 winger finished fifth in team scoring that season, with 45 points in 65 games.
Both players came to Wheeling straight from Cornell and earned call ups to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in their rookie seasons after adjusting to the pro game so well.
Another former Cornell captain, former Hobey Baker nominee Alex Rauter, is looking to follow in their footsteps during his first professional season. With 11 points in 13 games, the 24-year-old forward is on the right track.
Hilbrich, Rauter's teammate of two years at Cornell, gave the Nailers a good review when they were recruiting Rauter over the summer.
"I asked Christian Hilbrich as soon as Wheeling reached out to me, I asked him what his experience was, and he loved it," Rauter said. "He recommended it, he said there's no better place to play in the ECHL. He definitely helped me."
McCarron and Hilbrich aren't Rauter's only ties to the Penguins organization. He's good friends with Anthony Angello after being teammates with him in Omaha in the USHL as well as three years at Cornell.
"We're super close," Rauter said of Angello. "Before either of us even committed to Cornell, we also played on a summer tournament team called the Wildcats based out of New Jersey. He's a great guy, he's had a great start too up in Wilkes. Hopefully he keeps that going. ... We played together (on a line) a few times throughout our time, I'd love to be linemates with him again sometime in Wilkes, that would be cool."
Rauter's season got off to a slow start, and he appeared in just two of the Nailers' first six games. Since he's earned a regular spot in the lineup, he's found success. His three goals and eight assists rank him fifth in team scoring.
"For me it was slow to start, just trying to find my spot on the team and get into the lineup and playing regularly," Rauter said. "As soon as a little more opportunity was presented, I kind of just tried to take it and run."
In addition to his contributions on the scoresheet, Rauter plays a hard, 200-foot game. He's responsible defensively, and can kill penalties. At 6-feet-2 and 185 pounds, he has size as well.
Rauter's diverse background contributes to his strong hockey sense. Rauter played goaltender until age 14, before moving to forward. He was moved to defenseman midway through his junior year at Cornell after it lost a defenseman to injury, and he saw success. He played defense for the remainder of the season, and was invited to San Jose Sharks development camp as a defenseman.
"Playing D kind of gives you a better perspective on the whole game, because you see everything in front of you," Rauter said. "You can help make good outlet passes, make good plays, set everyone up to have more time and space."
While Rauter has primarily played forward this season, he's comfortable filling in on defense if needed. He played a few shifts at defense on Wednesday when the Nailers had three defensemen in the penalty box.
This week was a special one for Rauter. The Nailers' Hockey Fights Cancer game was on Saturday, and his mother Leslie, a breast cancer survivor, was invited to drop the ceremonial first puck.
— Wheeling Nailers (@WheelingNailers) December 2, 2018
"She's just done so much for me throughout my life, and throughout my hockey career," Rauter said. "I was saying, it's about time she got some shine because she definitely deserves it. It was so cool to have everyone clapping for her and giving her the ovation that she deserves."
Rauter's goals for the remainder of the season are clear. He wants to help the Nailers get back on track. Focusing on winning at this level will help him make the jump to the next level.
"First and foremost, we want to get back to the playoffs," he said. "I know it was super disappointing for the Wheeling fans last year to not make the playoffs.
"Personally, I just want to get a call up to the AHL. No matter if it's Wilkes or somewhere else. It'd be nice to get a taste of that action at the higher level. I think if we keep doing well here, teams will start to notice at the next level."
MORE FROM WHEELING
• Nov. 27: at Kalamazoo, 6-4 loss
• Nov. 30: vs. Indy, 6-2 win
• Dec. 1: vs. Kalamazoo, 2-0 loss
• Wheeling signed 26-year-old forward Mike Fazio on Friday. Fazio was previously cut in the team's training camp, and spent the beginning of the season with the Evansville Thunderbolts of the SPHL where he recorded one goal and eight assists in 14 games.
• The Nailers got off to an awful start Tuesday, allowing three goals in the first 7:20, one being shorthanded. Renars Krastenbergs answered with two goals in the first period. Kalamazoo added another goal in the second period, and then two more in the third. Winston Day Chief scored twice in the third period. Matt O'Connor played the first 20 minutes, and made eight saves on 11 shots. Danny Tirone finished the game in net and made 14 saves on 16 shots for the loss.
While the result wasn't what they wanted, the Nailers' shot total in the loss was a huge positive takeaway from the game. They registered 19 shots in the first period, 12 in the second, and 20 in the third for a total of 51.
• Wheeling again allowed the first goal Friday, and Krastenbergs again responded with a goal in the first period. Nick Saracino, Kevin Spinozzi, and Zac Lynch scored in the second period, and Indy added another goal. Spinozzi extended the lead in the third, and Fazio scored his first ECHL goal in his first game. Tirone made 24 saves on 26 shots for his first pro win.
• Kalamazoo's two power play goals were all it took Saturday. Tirone made 27 saves on 29 shots in his second start in as many days. Kalamazoo's Jake Hildebrand stopped all 30 of Wheeling's shots.
• Even though he has been in Wilkes-Barre for a week, Troy Josephs' 12 goals and 18 points still lead the team. Spinozzi, Saracino, Lynch, and Day Chief are all tied for the active lead in goals, with five each. Spinozzi and Saracino are tied for the active lead in points, with 14 each. Spinozzi and Saracino are tied for the overall team lead in assists with nine
• Lines and defense pairings from Saturday:
Alex Rauter - Nick Saracino - Yushiroh Hirano
Winston Day Chief - Cam Brown - Zac Lynch
Mike Fazio - Cedric Lacroix - Michael Phillips
Kevin Spinozzi - Danny Fick
Robbie Hall - Aaron Titcomb
Brien Diffley - Dane Birks
• After this week, the Nailers fell to last place in the six-team Central Division with a record of 7-10-1. The Nailers’ power play rose to 11th in the league at 17.8 percent, and the penalty kill still sits 17th in the league at 82.6 percent.
• The Nailers will host the Fort Wayne Komets (10-9) on Friday, visit the Toledo Walleye (14-2-2) on Saturday, and host the Indy Fuel (9-10) on Sunday afternoon.
GOALS OF THE WEEK
What a week for Krastenbergs:
Spinozzi scored this slap shot goal, his fifth:
Saracino scored his fifth goal of the season this week as well:
WHEELING FUN THING
When Wesbanco Arena is occupied, the Nailers practice at an outdoor rink. It was a bit chilly on Thursday:
— Wheeling Nailers (@WheelingNailers) November 29, 2018
Wheeling Symphony Orchestra put on its annual Symphony On Ice show at the arena that night. Every year, the show incorporates a few Nailers players. Four Nailers skated in the show holding their countries' flags this year -- Day Chief with the Canadian flag, Josh Couturier with the American flag, Yushiroh Hirano with the Japanese flag, and Krastenbergs with the Latvian flag.
— Wheeling Nailers (@WheelingNailers) November 30, 2018
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