DULUTH - A stalwart crowd of 5,321 took a chance the weather wouldn't be too bad going home from the Gwinnett Gladiators hockey game Saturday night.
The majority even remained in their seats when the visiting Mississippi Sea Wolves scored two goals - one short-handed - 80 seconds apart to break open a tie game in the third period.
The Sea Wolves collected a 5-4 victory, but fans proved why Gwinnett was able to surpass the 1-million mark in attendance Saturday. They didn't run for the exits when Mississippi, which never allowed Gwinnett to lead in the game, iced the win on a short-handed goal at 8:36 of the third.
The Gladiators rewarded the faithful by continuing to work and cut the deficit in half with 32 seconds remaining in regulation. But there wasn't enough time left to follow up on Lou Dickenson's tally and there's no such thing as moral victories for Gwinnett right now.
"(The last goal) was cosmetic," Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle said. "It looks like we have hope, but this team isn't that type of team that was going to come back with the confidence level we have now.
"Obviously, at the All-Star break, I'm going look to make some changes. There's some guys in there that are stealing money right now."
Gwinnett is winless in its last four games and lost more ground in the ECHL South Division standings. The same problems continue to plague the Gladiators.
"The goals we give up, our defensemen sometimes are so brutal," Pyle said. "We need more from Jonnie Sitko, we need more from Dinos Stamoulis, from Chad Denny when he's back there. We need all those guys to be better. And we're not. We're just not.
"We make mistakes that tear your heart out. We've got two guys walk out in front of our net alone off a faceoff. That's almost impossible to do."
With no rest for the weary, the Gladiators (22-11-4) play their fourth game in five days when Columbia comes to the Arena at Gwinnett Center for a holiday matinee on Monday. Puck drop for the special Martin Luther King Jr. Day game is set for 12:30 p.m.
"You pretty much start over (on Monday)," Pyle said. "It's not like we're not working. We get enough opportunities. We make the dumbest mistakes. The way we get goals scored against us, I've never seen it like that."
The inclement weather spoiled what would have likely been a large crowd as the Gladiators celebrated their 1 millionth fan.
Any late arrivers would have been surprised at the scoreboard.
Mississippi scored twice on its first three shots, less than three minutes into the game.
Sea Wolves' leading goal scorer Lance Monych lit the lamp for the 18th time this season with a low wrister that caught goalie Dan Turple flat just 1:11 into the game. It was the game's first shot on goal.
Veteran Travis Lisabeth doubled Mississippi's lead on the third shot. Lisabeth made Gwinnett pay for a turnover in its own zone. Lisabeth cruised in alone on Turple and scored five-hole at 2:42.
"It's pride and defense," Pyle said. "This is one thing I'll say they're doing as a team - that's not enough character defensively. There's not enough pride in defense. There's always an excuse."
It was a gross start and the Gladiators continued to struggle to find any kind of flow in their play. They did generate some solid scoring chances, but goalie Morgan Cey held the fort. Until a double deflection defeated him with a mere 18 seconds left in the first period.
Defenseman Jamie Milam jumped into the play, taking a wrister from just inside the blue line. It was deflected in the slot by Stuart MacRae and then hit a Mississippi player on the far post to foil Cey at 19:42.
It was a fortuitous bounce for Gwinnett and the Gladiators took advantage of a power play to start the second. MacRae potted his second goal of the game just 1:42 into the period. Defenseman Jeff Mason hammered a shot off the back wall and the rebound came right to the post. MacRae was there to jam it home and even the score 2-2.
That power play and two more in quick succession helped Gwinnett get in a groove offensively. But Lisabeth capitalized on another defensive breakdown to restore Mississippi's lead. Lisabeth was left alone in the slot and he didn't waste the opportunity, scoring his second goal of the game at 7:39 of the second period.
"The goals we give up are ridiculous," Pyle said.
Things got hairy in the final five minutes of the second.
First, Andy Brandt tied the game at 17:44. Sliding through the slot, he got a beautiful centering feed from Bryson Busniuk. Brandt made no mistake and roofed it into an open top shelf.
Not 30 seconds later, Lisabeth was tagged for an interference penalty. Mississippi head coach Steffon Walby got to hot over the call, he was given a bench minor and ejected from the game.
Gwinnett had a couple sweet scoring chances in the final 1:50 of the period, coutesy of those penalties. The Gladiators didn't convert early - in fact went 1-for-12 on the power play in the loss - and then took a penalty themselves to end the advantage.
Cey finished with 52 saves and helped Mississippi, one of the hottest teams in the ECHL, win its third straight game.
"We missed grade-A opportunities like no other team I've ever seen," Pyle said. "We had chances. We just don't bear down. We don't have the guys that will bear down enough."