ESTERO, Fla. - After the Gwinnett Gladiators scored their fourth third-period goal, Florida Everblades defenseman David Cornacchia kneeled down on his right knee and stared down at his skates for almost a minute.
Cornacchia looked stunned. He couldn't believe his team had blown a two-goal third period lead at home. Visitors rarely stage comebacks like this at Germain Arena.
It happened Wednesday.
Florida head coach Gerry Fleming called the 5-4 defeat in front of an announced crowd of 5,591 one of his team's worst of the ECHL season. It was just the second time the Blades had lost when leading after two periods. Florida, which led 3-1 at the start of the third period, is 27-2-3 when leading after the second stanza.
The loss snapped Florida's season-high, eight-game home winning streak and irritated its head coach.
"Everything started with bad penalties, undisciplined penalties, moronic penalties," a steamed Fleming said. "The things we talk about all year. I always think we're turning the corner but they always come back to haunt us. The habits that you form are the habits that you keep."
With just five regular-season games remaining, Wednesday's defeat might cripple Florida's hopes of climbing into second place in the ECHL South. Florida (35-24-8) trails second place Gwinnett by 11 points, third place South Carolina by nine and first-place Texas by 21.
Wednesday's victory was a special one for former Blades goalie Craig Kowalski, who was playing in his first game at Germain since he left the team after the 2006-07 season to go to Gwinnett.
The 2008 ECHL All-Star improved to 4-0 against his old squad by stopping 28 of 32 shots.
Kowalski turned away several shots in the final 1:11 when Florida had a 6-on-4 advantage after it pulled its goalie after a Gwinnett penalty.
"We've had a lot of comebacks like that this season," Kowalski said. "We're a dangerous team. If you give us chances, we're going to capitalize. That's what we did tonight. We played shutdown defense in the last five minutes when we had the lead. That's a sign of a good team."
Gladiators center Bryson Busniuk started the comeback with a power-play goal to cut Florida's advantage to 3-2 at 2:43 of the third period. The teams then traded goals before Gwinnett ended the contest with three unanswered tallies.
Gwinnett's Ryan Mahrle scored the first on a power-play goal to cut Florida's lead to 4-3 at 10:49 of the third period. Gladiators forwards Jeff Campell and Mike Hamilton then registered the final two goals at 14:35 and 15:36 of the third period, respectively.
"They have six or seven guys who can move the puck well," Blades forward Adam Taylor said. "Once they score a goal and get their confidence back you're in trouble."
Fleming, whose team will face Gwinnett on Friday and Saturday, seemed at wits end with the team. He said the team's veterans must take some heat.
"The veterans lead the way," he said.