DULUTH - The Alaska Aces defeated the Gwinnett Gladiators 5-4 in overtime and the hometown fans once again filed out in silence.
Alaska, which claimed the 2006 Kelly Cup the last time it played in the Arena at Gwinnett Center, scored 52 seconds into the extra session and celebrated in playoff fashion.
Vladimir Novak raced to embrace his teammates after rifling a shot past Gladiators' rookie goalie Dan Turple. It ended a 60-minute back-and-forth battle that featured four lead changes between last year's two ECHL finalists.
The Aces didn't end Gwinnett's season this time - as they did on June 1 - but that made little difference to a disgusted Jeff Pyle.
"We were destined to lose and we deserved it," the Gladiators head coach said. "It was just like the finals last year, 2-0 lead, we take some stupid penalties, a couple turnovers, guys not committed to getting pucks deep.
"I told the guys, 'You're not going to win a championship like that.' There's not enough commitment."
Gwinnett, which still leads the American Conference standings at 25-13-5, opened the scoring 57 seconds into the game and took a 2-0 lead into the first intermission by capitalizing on rebounds.
Starting quickly, Mike Vigilante swooped around the back of the Aces' net and got the puck out front. Alaska goalie Chris Beckford-Tseu fell to his side to stop Chad Painchaud's shot, but sprawled on the ice, there was no way to get to the puck lifted home by Andy Contois.
Vigilante cashed in on a rebound himself at 13:07 and doubled the Gladiators' lead. Jon Awe, reassigned to Gwinnett from AHL Chicago on Tuesday, fired his signature slap shot from the blue line into Beckford-Tseu's chest. The goalie who helped Alaska win the Kelly Cup last year, failed to hold the puck and Vigilante jumped at the opportunity to pot his 17th goal of the season.
Alaska (29-11-2, 60 points) scored the next three straight goals, tying it on consecutive power plays and the league-leading Aces took their first lead at 12:12 of the second period.
Longtime Ace Kimbi Daniels strolled through the right faceoff circle and beat Turple with a wrist shot to the near side at 2:40. The man advantage came courtesy of a penalty for too many men on the ice - the Gladiators' second such infraction of the game.
Alaska's power play, functioning at less than 17 percent coming into the game, converted again at 8:54. Gwinnett couldn't get a clear for the first full minute of the man advantage and the Aces kept buzzing around the net until defenseman Stephen Wood put an end to it with his eighth goal of the year.
"We're kind of lazy at times (on the penalty kill)," Pyle said. "We're committed at times, but it's not going to win us a championship. Too many breakdowns. Too many easy goals. Too many mistakes."
Another defenseman, and not an offensive-minded one, stepped up for Gwinnett after Alaska took the 3-2 lead.
Jon Sitko tied the game with his first goal in a Gladiators' uniform at 16:13 of the second period. Sitko, who was acquired for his defensive skills in a recent trade with Toledo, threw a shot from the point on net and it pinballed past Beckford-Tseu. The man who had two goals in four years of collegiate hockey at Bowling Green turned to the fans and raised both arms in exaltation.
Gwinnett regained the lead on a power-play goal by Jim Jackson at 5:53 of the third period and held it for nearly 10 minutes. But the Aces' Wood potted his second power-play goal of the game and tied it up again at 15:29.
"We battled, we played hard," Pyle said. "That's a good team over there. We've just got to be smart enough to bring it home and know how to play with a 2-0 lead."