DULUTH - The Gwinnett Gladiators stepped up in the second period and rolled to a 6-2 victory over the South Carolina Stingrays on Friday night.
The Gladiators avoided looking ahead to tonight's rematch with league-leading Alaska and won for the first time in three games. Gwinnett was coming off an embarrassing loss in Florida last Saturday and an overtime defeat at the hand of the defending champion Aces on Tuesday.
But rather than getting distracted by Alaska's return to the Arena at Gwinnett Center (set for today at 7:35 p.m.), the Gladiators collected their fifth victory over the Stingrays this season. Led by two goals each from Scott Mifsud and Chad Painchaud, Gwinnett improved to 26-13-5 (57 points) overall.
"Anytime you play a division game, those are huge points," Mifsud said. "We haven't seen them in two months and they've been playing great since then. So we didn't want to overlook anyone.
"The best part, the thing I liked, was in the third period, we didn't let up at all. That's key. When we get the lead, we've got to learn to go for the throat."
Alaska, which defeated Gwinnett in the Kelly Cup finals last season and rallied from a 2-0 deficit against the Gladiators on Tuesday, makes the final stop of an abbreviated East Coast trip here tonight. The Aces demolished Augusta 8-3 on Friday night.
"I think we'll play hard," Gwinnett head coach Jeff Pyle said. "It's going to be a good, tough game. If we open up and make mistakes, though, we will not win."
The Gladiators are expecting a crowd of around 10,000 - more than twice as many announced for Friday's game - for the showdown.
"(The fans) play a huge role," Mifsud said. "Even tonight, we still feed off them big time. They're loud whether it's 5,000 or 10,000. But anytime you play in front of 10,000 people, you can't help but get up for the game. We've got the best fans in the league here so it's going to be a great time tomorrow night."
The Gladiators, trailing 1-0 after 20 minutes, pounded away at goalie Davis Parley in the second period and scored in pairs to take a 4-2 lead.
"I thought in the first period we sucked," Pyle said. "We were flat and I kind of challenged guys in the second. I said, 'If you guys don't want to work 60 minutes, an hour a day for me, come Sunday morning we will work and I'll get my time back. You guys decide.'"
Mifsud said the team knew they were going to get a talking to in the first intermission.
"We deserve what we get from coach," Mifsud said. "Obviously whatever he said worked."
South Carolina's Matt Stefanishion, sprung on a breakaway, had the only goal of the first period.
But that was before Painchaud and Mike Vigilante hooked up to beat Parley twice in 28 seconds. Vigilante made two excellent centering feeds from the right wing, hitting Painchaud in stride coming up the middle of the ice.
Painchaud, a rookie under contract with the Atlanta Thrashers, first beat Parley on a gorgeous top-shelf backhanded shot at 7:07.
The only difference 28 seconds later was that Painchaud went a little wider and stayed on his forehand to handcuff Parley.
"Bottom line, when we work and we're smart, we're a good team," Pyle said. "South Carolina outworked us the first 30 minutes. (Goalie Dave) Caruso made some huge saves early."
South Carolina tied it 2-2 when a defensive breakdown left Cail MacLean alone in the slot and the veteran scored his 16th goal of the season at 12:23.
There was a bit more time between Gwinnett's next two goals, but not much.
A shot from the blue line by defenseman Jon Sitko deflected off Blue Bennefield at 16:20 and the Gladiators doubled their new lead less than 90 seconds later.
Colton Fretter, the team's leading goal scorer, went hard to the end boards and left a drop pass for Mifsud in the faceoff circle. Mifsud slung his shot high past Parley at 17:41 and celebrated wildly, arm shot into the air and leg kicked up to match.
Third-period goals by Bryan Dobek and Mifsud polished off the Stingrays, who yanked Parley after Mifsud's second tally at 12:52.