DULUTH - It was a mob scene when Mike Vigilante popped a puck past Florida goalie Craig Kowalski.
The veteran forward scored in the sudden-death seventh round of a shootout on Sunday at the Arena at Gwinnett Center and propelled the Gladiators past Florida in the game, 4-3, and the division standings.
Gwinnett goalie Dan Turple, who denied Jarret Lukin on the Everblades' seventh shootout attempt to set the table to Vigilante's winner, raced out of his net to tackle Vigilante at the blue line. The rest of the team piled on top, pounding on Vigilante and each other in an exuberant display suited to a playoff situation.
The Gladiators came into the game, their third in 48 hours, tied with Florida and Texas for the South Division lead. Gwinnett won its third straight game by coming from behind in the third period to beat the rival Everblades and take over first place in the division.
Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle felt the extended celebration had more to do with the weekend as a whole than defeating Florida in a shootout or taking over first place in the division.
"I think it was more of a relieved that we got back in the game than excited that we won," Pyle said. "The first two periods, we never really gave ourselves a chance to win. We killed momentum every chance we got."
Florida led 2-0 after 40 minutes. But for just the third time this season, the Everblades failed to hold a lead they had going into the third period.
Gwinnett scored three times in under 21⁄2 minutes, including a pair by defensemen Jon Awe and Jim Jackson 27 seconds apart.
Rookie Andy Contois gave the Gladiators their first lead of the game on a dynamic individual effort. The fleet-footed forward rocketed around the outside of a Florida defender, cut across the slot and lifted an off-balance shot over Kowalski at 9:20 of the third period.
The Everblades tied it at 11:46, but hit two posts in the shootout and earned one point to Gwinnett's two.
"We got that first goal, which energized us," Pyle said.
"Then Jimmy made a great play on the second and another individual effort by Andy on the third one, too.
"It shows how effective this team can be when they're going. We played one good period and we won the game."
Gwinnett (38-19-7) leads the Everblades (38-20-6) by one point with eight games left in the regular season. Texas, which has played one more game than either Gwinnett or Florida, is another point back in third place and hosts the Gladiators this weekend in a pivotal doubleheader.
The Gladiators, who have qualified for the playoffs all of their three previous seasons, need a combination of seven points to clinch a fourth straight berth. A combined seven points gained by Gwinnett or lost by any one of the three division teams fighting for the last two playoff spots, punches the Gladiators' ticket.
Augusta, tied for fifth place with Charlotte with two more games played than the Checkers, can amass no more than 89 points.
So 90 points in the South Division guarantees a postseason berth.
The top five teams in the division make the playoffs with the fourth and fifth seeds playing a best-of-three series for the right to meet the top seed in the next round.
Gladiators goalie Dave Caruso posted his 20th win of the season for Gwinnett on Saturday. The Roswell native is the third goaltender in Gladiators history to reach the mark. Michael Garnett did it in the team's inaugural campaign and Sean Fields did in both of the last two seasons.
Caruso's partner between the pipes and fellow rookie Dan Turple is just two wins shy of the feat.
Vigilante, in addition to potting the winning shootout goal, surpassed his career high for points (57, set with Gwinnett in 2004-05) with an assist in Saturday's defeat of Columbia.
Points piling up
Brad Schell posted an assist in Sunday's win over Florida, boosting his league-leading point total to 110. It was his 85th assist.
The ECHL record is a whopping 161 points, set by Trevor Jobe of the Nashville Knights in 1992-93.
Schell is also on pace to set a new league record for assists. That mark is 93, held by Dan Gauther (Knoxville, 1990-91).