NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. - The Gwinnett Gladiators choked the life out of South Carolina with a suffocating defensive effort in Game 3 of their division semifinal series.
Gwinnett swept the Stingrays from the Kelly Cup playoffs with a grinding 3-1 victory on Wednesday in North Charleston, S.C. Goals by rookies Scott Mifsud and Milan Gajic were enough to get the Gladiators past South Carolina and into the division finals.
Playing for the first time in this postseason, Sean Fields got stingy play in front of him - the Stingrays were held to 27 shots - and made 26 saves for the win.
Gwinnett controlled the puck and the momentum, especially for the first 40 minutes. At times it was as though the Gladiators had an extra skater on the ice, so often were South Carolina's attempts to generate offense defused. The Stingrays finally got on the board early in the third, sparking the team and the crowd. But Guillaume Desbiens' empty netter sealed the deal and sent the fans streaming for the exits with 16 seconds left in regulation.
The reaction on the bench and afterward in the locker room was fairly business-like, with a muted celebration.
"(South Carolina is) a good team," Gwinnett head coach Jeff Pyle said. "I think the second game (an overtime loss) just ripped their hearts out and it gave us the energy, knowing if we played better, we're going to get the job done.
"And Fieldsie came up with a huge effort today. He'll be starting the next round."
The Gladiators now get at least a week off. The earliest the other division semifinal between Greenville and Florida can end is Friday and Gwinnett has a tentative Game 1 set for next Wednesday.
So there's a little time to savor this accomplishment, the first sweep in franchise history that was made possible by a tremendous top-to-bottom defensive effort.
"It's definitely a good feeling," Fields said. "We ended their season and our season gets to continue. It's a good feeling. The boys are pretty pumped. We definitely didn't want to go to Game 5.
"It was an all-around, unbelievably awesome team effort defensively. They took the backdoor passes away, cleared out the rebounds. They made the game very easy for me."
An unassisted goal by Mifsud, who had the winning tally in overtime of Game 2, was the only scoring of the first period.
Well, the only allowed scoring. South Carolina thought it tied the game at 1-1 with a little over five minutes left, but referee Nygel Pelletier waived it off immediately as being kicked in.
So Mifsud's second goal of the playoffs stood up. The University of Vermont product scooped up a puck in the neutral zone that thudded dully off the skate blade of Stingrays' center Evan Schwabe. Mifsud rolled over the blue line and put a high wrister into the back of the net at 12:37.
"That was a big goal for us," Mifsud said. "I thought we were having a great first period and then, thankfully, we got that first goal. I thought we really built on that from there.
"We knew how important it was to finish it tonight. They're a great hockey team. We didn't want to give them any momentum."
The Gladiators had a goal of their own ruled as kicked in 2:22 into the second period, but still managed to double the lead in this tightly-contested game.
A breakout pass from defenseman Jeff Dwyer sprung Gajic with less than three minutes remaining in the second period. Gajic shook off two trailing Stingrays and rifled a point-blank shot past goalie Davis Parley at 17:42.
Gajic's fourth goal of the postseason was a harsh blow to South Carolina's hopes of prolonging the series.
Fields was perfect through 40 minutes, including a snappy glove save when the fleet-footed Matt Reid got loose for a one-on-one breakaway. It was one of the few defensive lapses for Gwinnett and Fields was equal to the challenge - at least until the 2:17 mark of the third period.
Jamie Fraser scored his first goal of the playoffs and breathed some life into the Stingrays' postseason. That was extinguished on Desbiens' first goal of the playoffs.
"Great job by Fields," Pyle said. "As a team you need the big saves and when you get them, you can just feel the energy on the bench. Once we got the second one, if we played smart and solid defensively, we knew we had a good chance to win.
"In the end, we did what we had to do. We played our best game of the series on the road."