By Christine Troyke
DULUTH - The energy was higher, the crowd was way bigger, but the game played out in much the same manner Friday as it had Thursday.
The Gwinnett Gladiators rallied to beat Florida in the third period, and former Everblades goalie Craig Kowalski was tremendous between the pipes.
Kowalski made 37 saves, including a huge denial on a penalty shot with 96 seconds left in regulation. Kowalski stonewalled Dan Collins to preserve the one-goal lead and the Gladiators collected a 4-2 victory.
Trailing Florida in the third period for the second straight night, the Gladiators scored three unanswered goals - two on the power play - to the delight of a boisterous 8,811 on hand at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
The win increased the Gladiators' (14-5-1) division lead over Florida (13-8-0) to three points and was their third victory in a row.
Head coach Jeff Pyle was surprisingly angry following the game.
"I couldn't be any more disappointed than I am now," Pyle said.
"Dead serious. We're (expletive) stupid. Yeah, we came back, we won, we got a few power play (goals). You could complain about the referee all you want. But the way we're playing, we're going nowhere. We take stupid penalties. We can't get a puck deep for our life."
The only compliments Pyle handed out were for Kowalski.
"K-wal is phenomenal," Pyle said. "We won that game tonight because of him. Because of him."
Captain Mike Vigilante, whose two-goal night included an empty-netter that iced the win, said he understood Pyle's displeasure.
"He's not looking at tonight," Vigilante said. "He's happy obviously with the two points we picked up, but he knows at the same time, that won't work in April and May against stiffer competition. So it's just a matter of learning from winning, too. You don't always have to learn from losing.
"I've said it all year, K-wal and (fellow goalie Dan Turple), we're where we're at because of them. If it wasn't for K-wal I think we would have been blown out in the first period."
An intense start on the ice was fueled by a horseshoe full of middle-schoolers stomping and chanting. That was the end of the arena that saw the first goal, just 2:19 into the game. It was not a thrill for the crowd, however.
Florida's Brandon Roach launched a wrist shot from the right point that beat Kowalski over the far, stick-side shoulder. It was a terrifically placed shot and Kowalski was screened.
So for the second straight night, the Everblades scored first. This time, Gwinnett
didn't wait nearly as long to get even.
The Gladiators' answering tally came about five minutes later on an equally tough shot for a goalie to stop.
Vigilante started and finished the play that tied the game at 7:12 of the first period.
The veteran paid the price along the boards to keep the puck in Florida's zone. Jeff Campbell gathered the puck along the half-wall and snapped it over to Jamie Milam near the blue line. Milam unloaded a slap shot and Vigilante was in the high slot to tip it past goalie Tyler Plante.
Florida kept firing away at Kowalski, who played most of his first three professional seasons with the Everblades. Florida outshot Gwinnett 19-7 in the first period and 30-20 through 40 minutes, but Kowalski kept things even at 1-1.
Both goalies made some sweet saves in the scoreless second period. Gwinnett generated many quality scoring chances, but it was Florida with the sustained pressure.
The Everblades took a 2-1 lead 2:49 into the third period, scoring on a delayed penalty. Florida's leading goal-getter Mathieu Melanson lit the lamp for the 15th time this season.
Then back came the Gladiators.
Dirk Southern tied the game, scoring on the power play at 10:39 of the third. Southern, who hadn't scored a goal in his last 10 games, was on the backdoor to jam the puck into an open net.
"I know Southie's been snake-bitten for a while now," Vigilante said. "To see his facial expression after it went in, I was so pumped for him.
"And for Mason to get the winner, that was awesome. Those guys deserve it because they have been working hard."
Defenseman Jeff Mason scored the game-winner on the power play a little more than two minutes later. He buried a slap shot from the blue line at 12:57. It was his first goal of the season.
That tally, combined with Kowalski's save on the penalty shot, forced Florida to pull its goalie with 1:39 left in regulation. Vigilante put the final dagger home with the empty-net goal at 19:17.
The Gladiators' perseverance in the third period and their two power-play goals sent Florida home pointless in two games here. The two division rivals don't meet again until Gwinnett travels to Estero, Fla., in March.