By Christine Troyke
DULUTH - The Gwinnett Gladiators fell to the lowly Pensacola Ice Pilots on an egregious short-handed unassisted goal with less than two minutes remaining in regulation Saturday.
The Gladiators allowed a 4-2 lead to slip away and then committed one final sin by giving up the winning goal to Bryan McGregor while on the power play.
Pensacola won for just the fifth time this season, scratching out a 6-5 decision in front of 5,046 at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
The Gladiators' top-ranked penalty kill unit gave up three goals to the ECHL's least effective power play and Gwinnett was defeated for the second straight game.
"(Pensacola) worked hard," Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle said. "They played good. It's not that bad of a team. But we showed up with half our guys. Then we played 10 minutes of hockey when we were down 5-4.
"Until our best players play the systems and buy in, it's going to be a struggle."
Gwinnett, which had ripped off seven consecutive wins before falling in Charlotte on Thursday are off until after Christmas.
The Gladiators (18-7-1, 37 points) had chances down the stretch.
They outshot Pensacola 19-6 in the third and tied it 5-5 on a goal by Mike Hamilton with just over five minutes left in regulation. But McGregor quickly nullified that effort.
"We pass up opportunities," Pyle said. "We're sloppy defensively. It just doesn't get it done.
"Defensively, we're red rotten as a team. The last two games we were red rotten."
The Gladiators didn't get a shot on net for the first 71â "2 minutes and gave up the first goal on the power play.
It could have been worse, but a combination of Dan Turple's scrambling saves and Pensacola's inability to bury good chances kept things 1-0.
Former Gladiator Joel Stepp, who began the season overseas, assisted on the Ice Pilots' goal at 3:17, which came on a third rebound at the post.
One shot from Derek Nesbitt evened the score at 10:35.
Nesbitt leads the league in shots on goal and lit the lamp with his 144th of the season. Gwinnett's leading scorer grabbed a loose puck in the neutral zone and took two quick strides over the blue line. Nesbitt unloaded a slap shot that whistled past Cam Ellsworth.
That shot was, however, one of just six in the period for the Gladiators. Pensacola had 19.
The second period didn't start any better. The Ice Pilots (5-18-3, 13 points) scored another power-play goal 57 seconds into the period when Erik Fabian buried his own rebound.
The Gladiators answered and answered well with three straight goals to take a 4-2 lead.
Nesbitt sprung Lou Dickenson on a breakaway midway through the period. Dickenson charged in, swept hard around the back of the net and tucked the puck in the open far side at 11:30.
Two power-play goals gave Gwinnett its first lead.
Two shots from defensemen at the blue line were responsible for the surge.
First, Jamie Milam unloaded a slap shot that Ellsworth turned aside, but the rebound came right to Stuart MacRae who lifted it home at 15:54.
Less than three minutes later, Jon Awe scored his third goal since being reassigned to Gwinnett from AHL Houston two games ago. A one-timer by Awe up top, plus Ellsworth scrambling without his stick, equaled a goal at 18:35.
Pensacola killed the Gladiators' momentum with three goals of its own, including the go-ahead goal by Stepp on the power play at 7:07 of the third period.
"Our "D' aren't playing well," Pyle said. "Our forwards aren't helping defensively. We have just too many breakdowns."
Hamilton tied this sea-saw battle again, 5-5, at 14:19. His shot from the bottom of the circle hit Ellsworth in the shoulder and looped up over the goalie. Ellsworth dropped to the ice and ducked his head in dejection. But not five minutes later he was celebrating a win with the rest of the Ice Pilots.
"Selfish penalties, stupid mistakes and that's what you get," Pyle said. "We didn't deserve to win that one.
"I question, as a group, that leadership in that locker room at times."