INDIAN TRAIL, N.C. - The Gwinnett Gladiators used another stout defensive effort to complete a first-round sweep of the Charlotte Checkers, collecting a 2-1 Game 3 victory on Saturday.
Charlotte scored just its second goal of the series with a little more than five minutes left in regulation. But the Gladiators buckled down and ended the Checkers' season before 1,246 at the Extreme Ice Center in Charlotte.
As the final seconds ran out, it was a somewhat businesslike celebration for Gwinnett. The Gladiators gathered around goaltender Dan Turple, who made 23 saves in the win, for congratulatory head pats.
They were certainly pleased - especially because the sweep earns them a couple days off. But no equipment was chucked into the air. It was an atmosphere indicative of Gwinnett's mindset.
"There's still so much hockey ahead of us, so we're not going to get overexcited for winning one round," said rookie forward Mike Hamilton, who scored Game 3's first goal. "We know we've got a lot of work left. We've just got to keep in mind that we've got to keep working every day."
Gwinnett will enjoy a couple days off while the rest of the ECHL South Division playoffs conclude. Columbia broke out the brooms against Florida, knocking the No. 4 seeded Everblades out in three straight games. But the other two series aren't finished.
"It's the first step and I think the guys realize it's an accomplishment," Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle said. "But I think they're probably more happy because they're going to get two days off."
For the third straight game of the quarterfinal round, Gwinnett was smart and stuck to what worked in the first two wins. Pucks were consistently chipped in and out of the zones. Pyle had no real complains after the clinching win.
"We did, again, exactly what we had to do," Pyle said. "We weren't as sharp as we needed to be. But I knew if we wore them out mentally, we'd be able to get in their head. And then Turps played phenomenal. He made huge saves and then we got the first goal, the power-play goal."
After failing to register more than a couple shots on net during three power-play chances in the first period, the Gladiators got two goals with the man advantage in the second period.
Shots from the blue line precipitated the goals that gave Gwinnett a 2-0 lead heading into the third.
In the early part of the second, the Gladiators were working on their fourth power-play opportunity of the game. Tomas Pospisil was along the boards and kicked the puck over to defenseman Jeff Mason. Mason unloaded a quick blast from the blue line that Hamilton deflected past Chris Holt at 6:53.
Charlotte had a glorious scoring chance foiled by Turple on its own power play two minutes later. Turple stoned Blake Bellefeuille, getting his shoulder in the path of a point-blank shot from the slot.
"My night was pretty easy," Turple said. "I had to make a couple big saves, but that's my job. The defensemen took care of the rest and the forwards took care of what they had to do. We didn't score a lot of goals tonight, but we definitely played the defense we needed to win."
The Gladiators scored again, one second after their next power play expired, to take a 2-0 lead.
All-ECHL defenseman Jamie Milam got a feed in his wheelhouse and pulled the trigger on a booming slap shot from the blue line. Jackson was alone on the backdoor and had time to lift the rebound over a prone Holt at 15:49.
Charlotte got within 2-1 when a shot by Lee Falardeau clipped the top of Turple's glove and looped over the netminder at 14:52 of the third period.
"Getting that goal so late, I thought to myself, I have to make up for that one, I can't let any more in," Turple said.
Turple and the Gladiators stayed cool under continuing pressure.
"We just knew it wasn't a big deal," Hamilton said. "Turps was confident, coach was confident, the whole team was confident. So we knew we had a good attitude and just had to keep doing what we were doing the whole game."
The Checkers pulled Holt in the final minute, but weren't able to stave off elimination with another goal. Charlotte was held to two goals for the entire series.