DULUTH - The Gwinnett Gladiators did what they could to maintain their position in the playoff race and in the process kept South Carolina from making the postseason for the first time in 14 years.
The Gladiators defeated South Carolina 4-2 on Friday night in front of 6,643 at the Arena at Gwinnett Center. The win, helped by two goals by Jim Jackson and the return of Colton Fretter, kept the Gladiators ahead of Charlotte for third place in the South Division standings and eliminated the Stingrays from playoff contention.
South Carolina had never missed the playoffs, but fell behind in the second period and couldn't get even again.
"The penalty kill was really good," Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle said. "The job our defense did, I thought we played real smart.
"Forwards, to a certain extent, were pretty smart; we still take some chances that are unnecessary. But under the circumstances of being beat up and a little short, that was a good battle."
Gwinnett (41-23-7, 89 points) needs at least one point in its regular season finale tonight at Pensacola to avoid falling into fourth place and a best-of-three playoff series with fifth-place
"It's almost better that we're playing for something than playing for nothing," Pyle said. "If we're smart enough and we want it bad enough, we'll have to show it tomorrow."
After ceding the opening salvo to South Carolina, the Gladiators took a 2-1 lead on goals scored 28 seconds apart midway through the second period.
The Stingrays (35-27-9, 79 points) had the only goal of the first period, scored by Michael Haley at 10:34.
Gwinnett tied it on the power play when Fretter made a spectacular return to the ice. Fretter, playing his first game since fracturing an ankle on Feb. 14, had a scoring chance on his first shift and lifted the puck high.
"I really wanted that to go in," Fretter said, smiling a little. "I just put it right off the crossbar."
But the league's leading rookie scorer made no mistake with his shot at 12:29 of the second period.
Jon Awe fanned on a slap shot from the point and Fretter gathered up the puck along the left boards. Wheeling around in the corner, the Michigan State product looked for options, and opted to shoot. His wrister beat goalie Davis Parley on the near side, just inside the post.
"I was looking for options and I saw two of their guys and Blue (Bennefield) in front," Fretter said.
"I just tried to get it to the front," he said with a laugh.
It was Fretter's team-leading 36th goal of the year and a fine welcome back after missing more than seven weeks of the season.
"It was good to have Fretts back," Pyle said. "I was afraid he was going to try to do too much, but he did the simple things and battled."
Fretter wasn't expected back until the playoffs.
"He came to me today and said he wanted to play," Pyle said. "Tuesday he said he didn't feel right. Then after three days (of practice), he started getting stronger, more confident.
"He's an important part of the puzzle."
Riding the high, Jackson gave Gwinnett the lead 28 seconds later. The defenseman unloaded a blast from the blue line that found the back of the net at 12:57.
South Carolina finished the second period and started the third on the power play after Gladiators defenseman Matt York was given a five-minute major for elbowing. York also got a game misconduct and that left Gwinnett with just four defensemen (captain Paul Flache was scratched with an injury) for the rest of the game.
The Gladiators killed off that penalty and then Joel Stepp made it a 3-1 game with an unassisted short-handed goal.
Stepp cruised up the right wing, 2-on-1 with Awe. Stepp rifled it past Parley at 10:08 of the third period and that ended up the game-winner after Haley scored his second goal of the night less than two minutes later.
"That was a big boost to our team," Fretter said of Stepp's goal. "Obviously, they came back and answered, but we were still able to feed off that energy."
Jackson closed out an increasingly chippy game with an empty netter at 19:58.
That sealed South Carolina's fate, which still had life after Augusta lost to Florida on Friday night. But for the first time in franchise history, the Stingrays won't be part of the playoffs. South Carolina has twice won the league championship, first in 1997 and again in 2001.