DULUTH - Adam Smyth made his third goal of the season a game-winner and goalie Mike Dunham picked up a win in his first appearance since being assigned to the Gwinnett Gladiators by NHL Atlanta on Saturday.
Smyth leaped into the air with arms raised after breaking up a tie game in the third period and pushing the Gladiators past Charlotte 5-3 in front of 7,540 at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
Checkers goalie Chris Holt poked the puck away from a charging Milan Gajic, but Smyth was trailing and found himself armed on the doorstep. Smyth pounded a shot into the back of the net 69 seconds after Charlotte had tied the game at 3.
It was a Gordie Howe hat trick for the gritty forward, who also assisted on a goal and got into a fight - much to the delight of the crowd, which included Smyth's parents.
"For the last month, anytime would have been good for me (to score)," Smyth said. "A guy like me, I don't get too many to begin with so to go through a dry spell is really tough.
"But to get a goal and an assist tonight, it kind of gets my energy and confidence back up. Those are (games) you take pride in."
Dunham was sent to Gwinnett (22-8-5) for conditioning after missing 28 games with a groin injury. The nine-year NHL veteran made 20 saves to collect a victory and is
expected to start again on Monday when the Gladiators play at home before returning to the Thrashers.
"Very rusty," Dunham said of his first game back. "It's been nine and a half weeks. It's been a long time and a lot of rehab. But this gives me a chance to go out there and try it out, see how it holds up. Tonight it felt really good. I knew there would be timing issues, but the groin felt good."
Dunham had a front-row seat for his first ECHL game, watching or playing.
"It's nice to see the freshness of young hockey players trying to work their way up," Dunham said. "I didn't know what to expect (from an ECHL game), but it was entertaining."
A pair of power-play goals - one pretty, one not so much - barely six minutes into the first period had the game tied at 1.
Charlotte, which has now lost four straight, scored first when Dunham went down to the ice and gave Hugh Jessiman a yawning net to shoot for. Jessiman, a first-round draft pick of the New York Rangers in 2003, walked up the middle one-on-one with Dunham and potted his 12th goal of the season at 4:28.
A minute and 33 seconds later, an avalanche of teddy bears hit the ice following Scott Kelman's tying tally. Gajic set up the goal, sweeping around the back of the net and feeding Kelman, who wound up and buried a slap shot from the top of the circle at 6:01.
The annual teddy bear toss promotion brings in hundreds of stuffed toys that are donated to local kids charities and also necessitates a sizeable delay in game action when the home team scores its first goal. The cleanup didn't diminish the flow Gwinnett was getting into, though it wasn't until after intermission that the Gladiators took their first lead.
Scott Mifsud knocked a shot off the crossbar, scoring his 10th goal of the season 2:31 into the second period.
Guillaume Desbiens doubled that margin at 13:14, rolling in alone and going top shelf on Holt.
Jessiman got Charlotte (18-16-3) back within one by converting on a 5-on-3 power play at 15:26 of the second period and the Checkers tied it with a shorthanded goal 2:56 into the third.
That set the table for Smyth's winner and Desbiens' empty netter. "That was cool having Dunham in there," Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle. "It energized the guys and I thought he played really well.
"Huge, huge goal by Smitty that he needed and on the whole we played pretty well."