ESTERO, Fla. - Once more the Gwinnett Gladiators finished a series when they had the chance.
They are the South Division champions because of unrelenting offense and a standout performance in net by Adam Berkhoel in a 7-4 Game 4 victory over the Florida Everblades.
Scoring three goals in three and a half minutes on either side of the first intermission, the Gladiators held off the hard-working Everblades down the stretch and eliminated Florida from playoff contention on Monday.
Two-time All-Star Troy Milam scored two goals, the second a killing blow when Florida was making inroads on a four-goal deficit.
"Milam's second goal was huge," said Milan Gajic, who had a hat trick. "They were pouring it on and then Milam scored that sixth one. You need that. You need guys to step up and not just scoring goals.
"Coach told us we don't have to impress anybody on the road. We know everyone here (in Florida) hates us and I like it like that. You've just got to keep it simple."
The Gladiators took a 5-1 lead on Gajic's second goal 7:03 into the second period and prompted the pulling of starting goalie Phil Osaer, silencing a crowd of 4,396 at Germain Arena.
But two goals for Florida got the Everblades - and their vociferous fans - back into the game. Florida cut the deficit to 5-3 on a power-play goal by Vince Bellissimo at 12:36 and was still buzzing when Milam delivered the knockout blow.
Milam blasted a rebound past replacement goalie Kevin Nastiuk with 28 seconds left in the second period and gave Gwinnett a 6-3 margin. The chance was made possible by captain Cam Brown, who came into the Florida zone one-on-one, went around an Everblade and took a shot on net. Brown's effort gave Milam time to jump into the play on a line chance and get to the doorstep for the putback.
"I'm just happy," said a visibly relieved Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle. "It was a tough series. Even though it was three (games) to one, it was never easy. They were never really out of it. Even at 5-1 I knew, getting the next one was going to be tough, but I give our boys credit. We battled. We never gave up. We won two on the road in probably the toughest building in the league to win in."
The Gladiators await their opponent for the American Conference finals. Wheeling and Toledo are tied 2-2 and play the deciding Game 5 tonight. Either way, Game 1 of the best-of-seven series is set for Friday at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
The Gladiators get a nine-hour bus ride home and all of today to enjoy their win.
"It'll be nice," Berkhoel said of the time off, throwing his head back and smiling broadly. "It'll be a heck of a lot nicer than having to go home and play Game 5 on Wednesday.
"We earned a couple of extra days off."
A furious start yielded two goals in the first 72 seconds.
Joel Stepp and Derek Nesbitt connected to give the Gladiators a 1-0 lead 30 seconds into the game. Nesbitt was behind the net and fed it to Stepp who scored his fourth goal of the playoffs.
Florida answered quickly, tying the game 42 seconds later when Ryan Brindley was at the post to tip a shot past Berkhoel.
The first period continued to roll without much defense, a pair of heavyweights playing smash-mouth hockey and going shot for shot.
Berkhoel was a difference maker, coming up with several spectacular saves as Florida fired at point-blank range.
The refusals there and a penalty shot in the final seconds awarded to Gajic allowed Gwinnett to take a 2-1 lead into the intermission.
Gajic burst into the Florida zone ahead of the rush and with two Everblades collapsing on each side, he went down in the slot. Referee David Banfield called a penalty shot and Gajic beat Osaer over the left shoulder with 18 seconds left in the first period.
"Berkie made four, five, six saves that could have easily been goals," Gajic said. "You need that. Your goalie has to be one of your best players and Berkhoel was. Definitely.
"It was an elimination game for them and they came out hard. They came out strong and Berkie stood on his lips. He got it done."
Adam Courchaine scored 2:04 into the second and Milam's first goal of the night came just over a minute later. Milam made it 4-1 at 3:11 and you could hear a pin drop when Gajic potted his second goal of the night at 7:02.
"If it wasn't me, it was going to be someone else," Gajic said of his three-goal night. "We're a good team. We wanted to keep it simple. We're on the road, it doesn't have to be pretty at all. I don't care if I get a hat trick with three of them off my head, as long as we got the goals."
Reggie Berg, the Everblades career leader in nearly every offensive category who didn't play in Game 3, started Florida's rally by beating Berkhoel at 10:25.
Bellissimo cut the gap to two goals before Milam slipped the late dagger home.
But Dustin Johner's exceptional move early in the third left the final outcome in question. Johner came in on a rush and backhanded a shot behind him into the net at 4:45 and got the deficit down to two goals.
Gajic removed any doubt with an empty-netter at 18:38 - it also completed an unusual hat trick for the rookie and allowed Gwinnett to savor the final minute of its series clinching victory.