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Gladiators defense trounces Inferno

DULUTH - Atlanta Thrashers' goaltender Mike Dunham, on a conditioning assignment to ECHL Gwinnett, was just looking to scrape some of the rust off after nine weeks on injured reserve.

The Gladiators' defense didn't give him much of an opportunity for that on Monday.

Gwinnett held slumping Columbia to a season-low 13 shots and trounced the Inferno 6-2 before an announced crowd of 6,287 in a Martin Luther King Day matinee at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.

"I don't know if (Dunham) got the shots he wanted, but he still made a couple big saves when boys fell through out there," said Danny Eberly, part of defensive corps that stifled Columbia most of the day. "He's a great goalie. Practicing with him in pregame and watching him, you get a real appreciation for those guys in the NHL, for their work ethic."

It was Dunham's second straight start and second win playing for Gwinnett. He returned to Atlanta after signing autographs with the Gladiators on Monday afternoon.

Despite limited work for Dunham, the Thrashers' brain trust - including general manager Don Waddell, assistant GM Larry Simmons and head coach Bob Hartley - got an eye full from some of Gwinnett's younger talent.

Milan Gajic - originally drafted by the Thrashers in 2001, but signed by the Boston Bruins - scored twice, including the game-winner as the Gladiators rallied from a 2-0 deficit.

Dunham gave up two goals on consecutive shots from Inferno rookie Pat Noonan less than a minute apart. Noonan had no points as a pro or in three years at Northeastern University, but scored at 3:37 and 4:34.

The Gladiators (23-8-5), for better or worse, are not unused to digging out of these early holes.

"We came out a little sleepy," said Eberly, who had a goal and an assist in the win. "I'm not going to say the boys weren't ready to play, but you could definitely tell a difference between us in the second and third (periods) and the first."

Adam Smyth scored his second goal in as many games to start the rally.

Smyth, contracted by Chicago of the American Hockey League, was at the far post to deflect Eberly's shot from the point at 5:50.

Another second-year pro, Jeff Campbell, brought the Gladiators even at 9:27. Campbell, among the league's top five point-getters, buried a rebound to pot the power-play goal and send the game to intermission deadlocked at 2.

Gajic showed off some stick-handling skills on the power-play and put Gwinnett ahead for good halfway through the second period. The rookie out of Michigan rolled through the slot and backhanded his own rebound past Columbia goalie Chris Houle at 10:48.

Gajic made the game look real easy less than three minutes later, pegging the back of the net from 20 feet out at 13:29.

Smyth assisted on both goals. The two goals and three assists Smyth has in the last two games exactly equals his totals from the previous 26 games.

Derek Nesbitt added a goal to his two assists on a turnover 15 feet from Houle. Nesbitt swiped an ill-timed pass and scored his 14th goal unassisted at 16:06.

Eberly rounded out the offensive effort in the third period with his sixth tally of the season.

"We're starting to actually get a little more rhythm with our lines now," Gwinnett head coach Jeff Pyle said. "Smitty played great again.

"It's nice to get these games done. Now we've got a little bit of a break, we've just got to find a way to keep it going. I just liked the way we finished today."

The Gladiators completed their run of four games in less than five days with a 2-1-1 record. The team finally gets a breather after playing eight times in the last 11 days and does so in high spirits.

"It's a little mentally tough, I know personally, you play so many games, getting out there again and being ready for the game," Eberly said. "But (it's easier) with great plays by guys like Cam Brown and Adam Smyth, those guys played awesome tonight. They really got us back in the game ... got that snowball rolling."

Gwinnett remains in second place in the ECHL South Division with 51 points, one behind Florida at the season's halfway mark.

Columbia (13-21-5) is winless in its last 13 games.