NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. - The Gwinnett Gladiators fought out of a 2-0 series deficit, winning on back-to-back nights to tie their division semifinal series against South Carolina.
But it was a battle waged for 72 games of the regular season that helped the Stingrays oust Gwinnett from the ECHL Kelly Cup playoffs on Wednesday.
South Carolina scrapped down the stretch to finish ahead of the Gwinnett in the South Division standings. Doing so has earned the Stingrays a berth in the division finals.
South Carolina ousted Gwinnett with a 2-0 win in the series' decisive Game 5 on Wednesday at the North Charleston Coliseum.
The home team won every game, which allowed the No. 2 seed Stingrays to eliminate the No. 3 seed Gladiators, 3-2.
"We battled," Gwinnett head coach Jeff Pyle said. "In the end, a lot of teams would have quit being down 2-0 (in the series). They didn't. But we didn't score any goals. You're not going to win like that.
"I told them it's nothing to be ashamed of. It's a great team. It was a great season."
The Gladiators rallied in the series with a pair of convincing wins in Gwinnett, but couldn't beat the Stingrays on their own ice.
Game 5 was a scrambling contrast to the two games in Gwinnett and South Carolina's defense was flat dominant. The Stingrays' seasoned blueline corps jammed up the high-flying Gladiators all night.
The stifling defense and a couple advantageous bounces got South Carolina the win.
"I thought we worked hard," Gwinnett forward Brad Schell said. "We had a couple chances in the first period and we didn't capitalize on them. You've got to give them credit, they have a well-coached, defensive team.
"They got the best of us tonight. But by no means are we hanging our heads. We wanted to win that one, but we lost to a good team."
The Gladiators got the shaft, literally, on the opening goal.
Goaltender Craig Kowalski was betrayed by his own stick on an seemingly innocent shot from Matt Scherer just 2:53 into the game. Scherer's offering from just inside the blue line deflected off the shaft of Kowalsk's stick and into the net. Kowalski lifted up his stick and stared at it like it was a foreign object.
The result was certainly foreign - it was the only time in these playoffs that the Gladiators didn't score the first goal of the game.
"The puck was on the ice and it skipped and rolled off my stick," Kowalski said. "Just a bad way to start the game. Especially because we were all over them. It's a bad bounce, but it happens.
"Give them all the credit, they got the lead and did what they had to do to protect it. They played well, the whole series. It was a hard-fought series."
South Carolina got a little breathing room 11 minutes into the second period. Working on the power play, the Stingrays hammered at a puck tucked up against Kowalski's pad and the post. Given enough whacks, Travis Morin was finally able to lift the puck over Kowalski's extended leg.
After peppering goalie Josh Johnson in Games 3 and 4, the Gladiators were limited to just 13 shots thought 40 minutes against Davis Parley. And those were all turned aside by Parley, who won the series' first two games in Charleston.
Gwinnett, fighting for its life, more than doubled its shot total from the first two periods in the final 20 minutes. But Parley made 20 saves to complete the shutout. The Gladiators hadn't been blanked in a playoff games since they were eliminated by Charlotte in the second round of 2005.
"For two periods, yeah, I thought they played really well," Pyle said. "Early in the first, we made some mistakes. But it is what it is. It's three games in three nights, five in six. You knew you were either going to get some breaks or not. We really didn't get any breaks."
Guillaume Desbiens thought he had a goal with about eight minutes left in regulation. But referee Jason Rollins said the puck never crossed the line.
"We worked hard," Pyle said. "Even in the third, we scored a goal that didn't count. It wasn't like we quit."
The Stingrays remained unbeaten on their home ice in the playoffs. South Carolina dropped the first two games of its opening round series in Augusta, only to fight back for three straight wins at the North Charleston Coliseum. Having been tied up by Gwinnett, the Stingrays didn't allow themselves to meet the same fate as Augusta.
South Carolina's four losses in the postseason all came on the road. Which makes their efforts to get and stay ahead of Gwinnett in the regular-season's final weeks so consequential.
"We had two opportunities with leads here and didn't get it done," Pyle said. "I give them credit. They took advantage in the first two games of every opportunity and took a 2-0 lead. And found a way to get it done again tonight.
"Parley was great for them. We knew if we got some opportunities, we'd have to bury them. This is one of those games where we're going to look back and say, 'would've, should've, could've.' But that's pro hockey."