DULUTH - Joel Stepp had a hat trick and led the Gwinnett Gladiators to a 5-3 victory over Florida in Game 1 of the ECHL's South Division finals on Wednesday in Duluth.
Stepp's three goals and two more on the power play rallied the Gladiators, who saw a 2-0 lead slip away on three consecutive goals by Florida in the second period. It was Stepp's first professional hat trick and Gwinnett equaled its postseason power-play scoring total.
"First period we took it to them," Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle said. "Second period they took it to us. And the third period, we stepped it up at home."
They did indeed Stepp it up.
The center scored the game-winner and completed the hat trick 5:20 into the third period when Everblades goalie Phil Osaer couldn't get all of his wrister from 15 feet out.
But his game-tying goal, in the final minute of the second period, was much bigger.
"That was a huge goal," Stepp said. "Florida had all the momentum in that period and to get that goal to come into the third tied was a pretty big deal."
The Gladiators will gladly take this win, but know the best-of-five series is a long way from over. Game 2 is set for 7:35 p.m. Friday at the Arena at Gwinnett Center, then the teams travel some 600 miles to Southwest Florida for Game 3 on Saturday.
"To me it means absolutely nothing," Pyle said. "It was one game and that's all it was. I told the boys, it's 0-0, we come out on Friday like it's Game 1 again."
Playing with plenty of jump, but still testing the waters a little bit, this game was scoreless for more than 10 minutes until the Gladiators' power play converted on its first chance.
Give credit to Gwinnett's penalty kill and goalie Sean Fields for keeping Florida off the board early. The Gladiators denied the league's top postseason power play twice in the first nine minutes and Fields made an exceptional sliding cross-crease save on Corey Neilson.
With that storm weathered, Derek Nesbitt picked a good time for his first point of the playoffs.
Defenseman Troy Milam unloaded a shot from the point that Guillaume Desbiens tried to smack in on the rebound. Osaer couldn't corral the puck and it skittered over to Nesbitt on the left post. Nesbitt roofed a wrister over Osaer at 10:38.
The Gladiators were all over Florida after that, getting rush after rush and doubling their lead less than four minutes later. Stepp whipped a hard-angled wrister on net and the puck went in off Florida's Reggie Berg at 14:20.
Whatever was said in the Everblades' locker room during the first intermission did the job. Florida scored 28 seconds into the period, tied it at 7:32 and took a 3-2 lead at 15:03 when Steve Saviano lifted a bouncing puck past Fields.
"I knew once they scored that one, they were going to really come," Pyle said. "They started playing harder and we started getting a little tentative."
But Gwinnett's Stepp capitalized on a horrible defensive gaffe by Matt Bannan to get even with 35 seconds left in the period. Bannan whiffed on a cross-ice feed to his defensive partner inside the Florida blue line. Stepp was coming up the middle, scooped up the puck and made no mistake rifling a shot over Osaer.
After putting Gwinnett up 4-3, Stepp also assisted on the final tally of the game.
Scott Mifsud gave the Gladiators some precious breathing room, converting on the power play. Mifsud was at the post and jammed home his second swipe with just over 10 minutes left in regulation. Stepp, who was held to one assist in Gwinnett's first playoff series, assisted on the final goal and finished the game with four points.
"We came into the dressing room 2-0 up after the first and kind of took our foot off the gas pedal a little bit," Stepp said. "It just goes to show that Florida is a great hockey team.
"The game's over with, we won it, it's great. But we've got to forget about it. It's a race to three."