DULUTH - The Gwinnett Gladiators rallied to win for the second straight game and beat the visiting Florida Everblades 3-1 on Thursday before a sparse crowd at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
The victory boosted the Gladiators past Florida and into second place in the ECHL South Division. It snapped a three-game winning streak for the Everblades and was particularly sweet for former Florida goalie Craig Kowalski.
Despite giving up the first goal, Kowalski was excellent between the pipes and a third-period offensive surge from his current teammates kept that effort from going to waste.
"It really feels good to beat them," Kowalski said. "To beat anybody feels great, but it's special playing against the team you played for for a couple years.
"It was a big game for us. They were ahead of us in the standings and we needed this. They needed it too, and fortunately we battled hard in the third period and came away with the win."
Jamie Milam tied the game on the power play 5:22 into the third. Just as it was starting to look like overtime was on tap, a centering feed in the neutral zone sprung captain Mike Vigilante.
The fleet-footed forward sliced into the Everblades' zone and rifled a wrister into the back of the net with 1:34 remaining in regulation.
Florida pulled goalie Justin Peters with 62 seconds left. The Everblades never got a chance to use the extra attacker. A break the other way found Vigilante feeding Derek Nesbitt. Nesbitt made no mistake icing the win with an empty-net goal at 19:08.
It was the first time this season Florida (13-7-0, 26 points) lost when leading after two periods. The Everblades, which play again in Gwinnett tonight, were 10-0 coming into Thursday's game.
"We did exactly what I wanted us to do," Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle said. "Guys are stepping up. Our third line played well; I thought everybody did.
"It doesn't look great, but it's very effective."
Kowalski had fended off nearly twice as many shots as his counterpart Peters as a scoreless duel stretched past 23 minutes.
Gwinnett got some sustained pressure on Peters late in the first period and started the second with a power play. But Peters was solid and Florida scored first.
Mike McLean caught the Gladiators on a line change and latched onto a puck sliding through the neutral zone. McLean was so alone by the red line that it looked too much like a penalty shot.
The rookie, who was just recently sent from Elmira to Florida, took his time advancing on Kowalski. McLean slowly deked twice, drew Kowalski right and tucked a soft shot into the open left side of the net at 3:27 of the second period.
"I didn't want him to lose 1-0 today," Pyle said. "I was just hoping we were going to tie it up. The kid did his job, made the saves he needed to make. You're just happy for him. He's got a lot of pride."
The Gladiators (13-5-1, 27 points) crept back into a near tie on the shots - Florida was still up 25-22 after 40 minutes - but didn't get any rubber past Peters.
The play was clean of penalties, which should have helped create some flow. But neither team had much success maintaining possession. The puck bounced around the neutral zone with all the focus of a small child with ADD and a sugar rush.
But Gwinnett solved Florida's top-ranked penalty kill at 5:22 of the third period. Jeff Campbell dished a back-handed pass to a waiting Milam near the blue line.
Milam tied the game with a blistering slap shot that ripped past Peters just inside the post. Milam's seventh goal of the season was moving so fast it whipped around the entire inside of the net to come smoking out at the other post.
When Vigilante scored his sixth of the season - his second game-winner of the year - it earned the Gladiators another comeback victory. Last Sunday, Gwinnett rallied from 2-0 down to beat division-leading Texas in a shootout.
"We've put together a couple good third periods in a row," Kowalski said. "And you need that if you're going to do anything during the season. So it's a great sign of our team that we don't die. And with our offense, we're always in a game no matter what. It was a good win tonight."
SideBar: Everblades at Gladiators
When: Today, 7:35 p.m.
Where: Gwinnett Arena