DULUTH - Colton Fretter collected his first natural hat trick as a professional and led the Gwinnett Gladiators past the Texas Wildcatters 4-2 on Friday in front of 4,673 at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
The hats were a little late to start falling from the stands, but rained down steadily as Fretter celebrated his third consecutive goal with teammates. It was Fretter's second pro hat trick (he got four goals in the fifth game of the season) and rallied Gwinnett from a 2-1
"Fretts is Fretts; he scores no matter what," Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle said. "He's just always there and good players find a way to get there."
The win also boosted Gwinnett back into the division lead. The Gladiators jumped over Texas for the top spot in the ECHL South Division and improved to 28-13-5 (61 points). Texas, which hadn't lost in regulation in six straight games, trails the Gladiators by a single point in the extremely tight division standings.
"The things I questioned last week, I wanted to challenge them as a team to play harder defensively, to play smarter and be more committed," Pyle said. "Because this is go-time right now.
"The next two weeks, if we can stay hot, it might take pressure off."
Gwinnett's three-in-three set continues today with a road game in Augusta. The two teams return to here for a rematch on Sunday. After the win over Texas (26-13-8), the Gladiators are aiming for another big division victory tonight at James Brown Arena.
"It was huge to win this one tonight," Pyle said. "It kind of set the tone for the weekend. It was a good battle.
"I was just glad we didn't give up a goal in the third. The guys have got to learn to win that 4-2 game. They have to. And it's good (we got it done)."
Joel Stepp scored the opening goal in his first game back since Jan. 13.
The centerman missed eight games with a knee injury, but made an impressive return with a goal at 15:45 of the first period.
Sprung on a breakaway in the neutral zone, Stepp rolled down the right wing and cut through the faceoff circle. He pulled up in the slot, as though waiting for support, then ripped a shot past goalie Matt Yeats' high glove side. It was his first shot of the game.
"It feels good to help the team out like that," Stepp said. "I didn't really expect to do too much out there, first game coming back.
"Going down, I knew I wasn't going to be able to beat him to the net, so I just kind of pulled up. It felt good (to get the goal)."
Stepp's effort was nullified by sheer laziness on Gwinnett's part. Texas tied it on a short-handed tally at 17:27. The Gladiators, with the man advantage, first let Olivier Proulx bulldog his way to the puck behind the net and then stood around while Proulx dumped a centering feed into the slot. The puck ricocheted off a Gwinnett skate as three Gladiators waited in the slot for something to happen.
Well, something did and goalie Dave Caruso was in no way responsible for the puck that got past him.
Nor should he be criticized for the Wildcatters' second goal, a go-ahead tally 6:03 into the middle period. After making two saves, Caruso was on his stomach when Paul Albers pounced on a rebound in the slot.
The lead didn't last long, however, as Fretter scored the first of his three goals just under two minutes later. Fretter was in the slot to deflect a shot by Matt York past Yeats at 8:02. The goal, Fretter's 30th of the season, came 12 seconds into a Gladiators' power play.
"It's always good to get a goal like that, to tie the game back up," Fretter said. "It's a momentum swing for your team. It picks your team up and knocks their team down a little bit."
The league's leading rookie scorer put Gwinnett back in front, 3-2, at 15:15. Stepp fought through a Texas defender along the half wall and made a heads-up centering feed to Fretter in the high slot. Fretter rifled it low past Yeats.
"It was huge (having Stepp back)," Pyle said. "He was throwing his body around. He scored the first goal. He assisted on the third goal.
"The guys see that work ethic, him coming off the knee injury and playing that hard in your first game, that's huge. You can't say enough. When Stepper's playing that way, he's as good as anybody in this league."
Fretter's third goal came in similar fashion, except this time it was the ECHL's leading scorer Brad Schell making the pass from the wing for Fretter to rip home at 8:05 of the third period.
"We didn't change much the whole game," Fretter said. "We played pretty much the same way. We were just lucky enough to get a few goals."
"Well, those were three great passes," Fretter said. "I couldn't have asked for much more. I had all the time on the world to shoot, so I have to thank the guys that made those passes."
Fretter's goal total is now up to 32, one off the league lead and the team season record shared by Guillaume Desbiens and Kevin Doell.