DULUTH - In celebration of St. Patrick's Day, the Arena at Gwinnett Center ice was green. But as each period wore on, the ice was cut up by skates and the resulting snow turned the areas of heaviest use a much lighter shade.
The space in front of the Columbia goal was nearly white at the end of each period.
The Gwinnett Gladiators dominated play and walked away with a 5-1 victory over the Inferno before a raucous crowd of 10,349 on Saturday. Led by the line of former Columbia forward Chris Thompson, the Gladiators tromped on the accelerator coming out of the gate and never trailed.
Thompson assisted on Gwinnett's first two goals and then drove home the killing blow in the third period. Thompson scored his first goal as a Gladiator 4:54 into the final period.
"I was hoping for it to come a little earlier," Thompson said with a smile. "But it just felt good."
With Gwinnett (37-19-7) already leading 3-1, Thompson slammed the door on his former teammates. The veteran was at the post for a pass from Chad Painchaud and buried the puck. It was his 11th goal of the season but first since being acquired by Gwinnett at the trade deadline. He celebrated wildly, pounding the glass behind the net as the near-sellout crowd erupted around him.
"It's like having a sixth man out there," Thompson said of his loud new fans. "I haven't had goose bumps in a while. I started the last two home games, and coming out to that crowd, I got goose bumps all the way down by body. It's a rush, that's for sure."
Not like there wasn't enough to cheer about, but Luke Erickson scored his first goal as a pro to cement the win. Just signed Thursday after completing his collegiate career at Bemidji State, Erickson's third-period power-play tally was assisted by Thompson's linemates, Painchaud and Joel Stepp.
And, oh, by the way, the win boosted Gwinnett into a tie for first place in the ECHL South Division. Florida and Texas both lost on Saturday, leaving the three teams deadlocked with 81 points.
"You've got all three lines going hard and playing good defense," Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle said. "And it was nice to see Luke score his goal. The kid works hard, does the little things well. Caruso was solid in net.
"But it was nice to see Painer work that hard. That line earned it. They deserve every bit of fanfare they got today."
That trio was clearly feeling it from the beginning.
They scored the Gladiators first two goals.
The first came 32 seconds into the game on a broken play.
Centerman Joel Stepp lost an edge in Columbia's zone and went down on his stomach, but managed to swipe his stick out and get the puck to Thompson, who was near the goalpost. Painchaud came streaking in and Thompson dished it to the rookie winger. Painchaud roofed his shot and the crowd, primed from the get-go, let out a deafening roar.
Columbia tied it on a power-play tally at 4:24, but Stepp's 14th goal of the season regained Gwinnett's lead. Thompson's breakout pass sprung Painchaud along the left boards. Painchaud made the drop pass to Stepp in the middle and Stepp rifled a wrister over goalie Robert Gherson's far shoulder at 6:55.
"We've had some chances in the three, four games we've played together," Thompson said. "We started (this one) off quickly with Painer getting one and then Stepper getting one.
"It's been a good mix from right off the bat."
Blue Bennefield padded that advantage with his 15th goal of the season at 12:49. Andy Contois set up the tally, wheeling around from behind the net and throwing a shot on net. Bennefield was parked on the doorstep and deflected the puck in out of mid-air. It was vintage Bennefield and sent the Gladiators into intermission with a 3-1 lead.
The second period was scoreless, but in no way boring. Gwinnett spent a lot of time buzzing around the Inferno goal, though Columbia actually finished the period with a 19-14 shot advantage. The Inferno started and finished the second by cranking a prime scoring chance off the irons. But goalie Dave Caruso held the fort and the two third-period goals smothered the Inferno.
"It's fun, it's very reassuring to watch that team play that way," Pyle said with a laugh.
"I'm just glad. They worked hard."
The Gladiators complete their three-game-set this afternoon when Florida comes to the Arena at Gwinnett Center.