ESTERO, Fla. - Troy Milam and Guillaume Desbiens scored goals barely two minutes apart in the third period, breaking up a tie game and propelling the Gwinnett Gladiators to a 6-4 victory over Florida on Saturday.
The road win gives Gwinnett a 2-1 lead in its best-of-five division finals with the Everblades. The Gladiators could close out the series with a win in Florida on Monday.
"We played phenomenal," said Gwinnett head coach Jeff Pyle, who was so fired up he was nearly bouncing with enthusiasm. "(But the Everblades) aren't going to die now.
"Nothing's over. We need this (next) game like we need every game. It's going to be a tough one, but we're coming here to battle. We're going to make their life difficult and just do the best job we can."
For the moment, though, they can cherish coming out on top of a see-saw battle at Germain Arena in Estero, Fla.
The Gladiators watched a 4-2 lead slowly evaporate, only to get monster goals from Milam and Desbiens.
Milam held the puck, dancing along the blue line and just when it seemed he might have waited too long, the All-Star defenseman lofted a head-on shot that eluded goalie Phil Osaer. Milam's first goal of the playoffs came at 6:28, and it proved to be the game winner.
"That was huge," Desbiens said. "The crowd was going crazy and that plays on us a little bit. I mean, we struggled a little getting pucks out of our zone, but we knew before the series we had to put some traffic in front of Osaer. What he can't see, he can't stop.
"I think that's what happened. Milo took a good shot, one foot off the ice through traffic and Osaer didn't see nothing."
Desbiens gave Gwinnett some precious valuable breathing room at 8:46, draining what life there was out of a formerly rocking crowd of 6,459 with his second goal of the night. Desbiens intercepted a pass inside the Florida blue line and then banged Brad Schell's rebound past Osaer for the final margin of victory.
"They capitalized on our turnovers and they played a good hockey game," Florida forward Ernie Hartlieb said. "A couple of mistakes by us and they ended up putting it on out net.
"It was a tough loss for us tonight. We've just got to rebound and get back at it again Monday."
Gwinnett didn't score the opener for the first time in the series but answered Paul Cabana's early tally with three of its own.
Adam Courchaine got an odd-man rush with Milan Gajic cruising up the right side and one Everblade between them. Courchaine opted to shoot and clanged it home off the far post, tying the game 1-1 at 6:53.
Desbiens gave Gwinnett its first lead less than three minutes later. Desbiens' low shot trickled under goalie Kevin Nastiuk as he tried to close down the five-hole at 9:43 and Courchaine double that advantage with his second goal of the game.
Courchaine, parked in the slot, got an excellent feed from Gajic in the corner and beat Nastiuk low again - prompting Everblades head coach Gerry Fleming to pull Nastiuk from between the pipes.
"We came out smoking early in the game," Pyle said. "The first period I thought we played fantastic. The second period, they get back in it and they played well. They don't die."
Florida cut the margin to one with its third shot on goal, tossed on net by Drew Larman just 42 seconds after the Gladiators gained the 3-1 lead.
But defenseman Jon Awe stepped up and fired a cannon from inside the blue line that beat replacement goalie Osaer high on the stick side with 1:45 left in the first period.
Florida cut the deficit to one, 4-3, with just 6:35 left in the second period when Dustin Johner converted on an odd-man rush and tied it on Cabana's second goal of the game 18 seconds into the third.
"You're not going to shut these guys down," Pyle said. "It ain't going to happen. There's too much offense out there. You can only hope to contain them."