DULUTH - Gwinnett head coach Jeff Pyle said he didn't expect Brad Schell to carry the Gladiators in his first game back this season.
Pyle might not have expected it. Schell didn't either, come to that. But he still delivered.
Last year's ECHL MVP dazzled in his debut after missing the first half of the hockey season with a back injury. Schell scored back-to-back goals to rally Gwinnett past Wheeling 3-2 on pink ice Friday night.
"It feels good," Schell said with a grin. "I knew coming in my legs weren't going to be in game shape. It'll probably take me a few weeks before I get them under me.
"I just wanted to keep it simple and do the little things right."
If this is Schell not in game shape, the opposition is in trouble. Pyle was particularly complimentary of Schell's work ethic and Schell had enough in the tank for a pair of third-period goals.
"It was a breath of fresh air because he was our hardest working guy coming back (into the defensive zone) also," Pyle said.
"He just does things that winners do."
Schell also picked up an assist with a primo pass on the game's first goal.
The crowd, nearly 5,500 strong at the Arena at Gwinnett Center, cheered Schell's return when he was announced for the starting lineup. Schell gave them plenty more reasons to do so again during the game. He and Jeff Campbell had spectacular chemistry playing on a line together.
"Me and Soupy know each other really well," Schell said. "This is our fourth year together. Playing with him, it gets no better than that. He's a former MVP. I look for him out there and he looks for me. You find that chemistry right away and being a player like that, it's pretty hard not to have success with."
The MVP connection staked Gwinnett (27-13-4) to a 1-0 lead at 6:55 of the second period. Schell dished a backhanded pass from behind the net to Campbell, who was on the doorstep. Campbell, the ECHL's most valuable player in 2005-06, snapped it under goalie Curtis Darling.
"He and Soupy are MVPs and it's not luck or anything," Pyle said.
But Wheeling (14-28-5) answered 10 minutes later - twice. The Nailers scored two goals 29 seconds apart to take a 2-1 lead into the third period.
Vadim Slivchenko's wrister from the point beat goalie Craig Kowalski over the far shoulder at 16:44. Kelly Miller capitalized on a turnover in Gwinnett's zone to score an unassisted goal at 17:13 and put Wheeling out front - despite the Nailers being doubled up in the shots on goal department.
"I was disappointed in our effort early," Pyle said. "It was a bad goal by K-wal and he'll tell you that. Then (Jeff Mason) turns it over. Those two things shouldn't happen. I'm sorry, but those two goals you can't give up that easy. That's been our M.O. We fall asleep for a while."
Wheeling was 10-1-1-1 when leading after two periods. The Gladiators were 3-4-0-1 when trailing after two periods.
Schell made a mockery of those trends. He tied the game 13 seconds into the third period, scoring on the power play.
The 24-year-old who racked up a league-best 110 points last season potted his second of the night and gave Gwinnett a 3-2 lead at 2:48. Campbell made it a three-point night as well with assists on both those tallies.
"We talked in the second intermission that we had to go out and get a quick start on the (power play)," Schell said. "We went out there and got two quick goals, we played good defense in the third period and ended up with the win.
"It's nice to get that first one under the belt and go from there. But playing three in three, forget about tonight's game, we've got to look forward to tomorrow. They're a great team and they played hard. They hit, they work hard so we've got to be ready tomorrow night, too."
The two teams meet again tonight for the second of three games in as many days for Gwinnett. The Gladiators continue with their "Pink in the Rink" extravaganza, an event to raise money and awareness for women's cancer research, at 7:35 p.m. today. The weekend concludes with a Sunday matinee against Columbia.
"Hopefully this (third) period woke us up and we're ready tomorrow," Pyle said. "Any time you can come back in the third and win against anyone in this league, I don't care who it is, it says something."