DULUTH - Playing against his former teammates in his Gwinnett Gladiators' debut, goalie Josh Johnson was spectacular in overtime with three breakaway saves. But he was ever so slightly outdone by South Carolina netminder Michal Neuvirth in a shootout.
The Gladiators could only get one puck past Neuvirth in the shootout and two got past Johnson as South Carolina collected the extra point with a 3-2 win on Saturday at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
A near sellout crowd of 11,072 was on hand to watch the goaltending dual between ex-teammates - Johnson came to Gwinnett in a trade on Tuesday.
The Gladiators (3-4-3, 9 points) were aiming to follow up a win Friday night and twice had a lead against South Carolina (8-2-0, 16 points). They fell a little short, but no one seemed upset about the result.
Head coach Jeff Pyle was smiling in his office afterward.
"It was good hockey," Pyle said. "We had enough opportunities. Both goalies, I thought, played well. Yeah, we made some mistakes, but I thought Josh did what he had to do in order for us to win.
"He gave us a chance to win and that's why we wanted him. We had enough opportunities, we just couldn't find a way to get that third one in."
Tied 2-2 after a scoreless third period, Johnson was outstanding in overtime for Gwinnett. He foiled three breakaway chances, including one short-handed, to keep the Gladiators in it.
It certainly warmed him up for the ensuing shootout.
"I guess it maybe built a little confidence," Johnson said. "But they were taking chances, trying to get the 'W' and that happens."
Johnson, having seen the Stingrays' shootout moves many times in practice, had a good idea of what to expect once the game got past overtime.
"Yeah, you know, it was kind of messing with my mind," Johnson said. "So I just went out there and had a little fun. It was great to play against the old team and they've got, obviously a lot of great talent and a lot of great guys on the team. So it was a lot of fun."
Two rather grievous defensive mistakes left the game tied 1-1 after one period.
Gladiators' defenseman Scott Marchesi opened the scoring just 2:02 into the game, capitalizing on a turnover in the neutral ice. Marchesi snatched an errant pass and hit the jets, knifing up the middle of the Stingrays' zone. Marchesi managed to make three quick moves with the puck in close and lifted a back-handed shot past Neuvirth for the 1-0 lead.
South Carolina tied it on a short-handed goal at 15:05 when Gwinnett left Johnson out to dry. Three of South Carolina's four players on the ice were allowed to triangulated the net. Two easy passes later, Maxime Lacroix potted his sixth goal of the season.
"We should have supported him better," Pyle said.
But Gwinnett regained the one-goal lead, converting on the power play at 10:33. Pat Bateman got a centering feed from the corner and immediately buried a low shot. It was Bateman's fourth goal of the season and sent the large crowd into a frenzy.
South Carolina cooled things back off with another tying goal. This one was a seemingly innocuous turnaround shot by Steve Pinizzotto from the half wall that fluttered past Johnson at 14:16.
Johnson admitted that goal was on him.
"It was just a mistake I made, a simple little mental error," Johnson said. "It went short side. I don't know, not much can be said about it. Bad goal, but you've just got to rebound."
It was the last miscue from the netminder and helped his new team pick up a point to get three out of a possible four on the weekend.
The Gladiators remain at home for three more games, next is Wednesday against the North Division's Dayton.
"I think we're going (in the right direction)," Pyle said. "I like what I see. We're getting better every day, doing the little things. I just want effort and I want consistency.
"And we did something tonight that I wasn't sure we could do. In the third period, we played so solid defensively. We didn't give up a whole lot. Other teams might have taken a chance, turned a puck over. But we found a way to stay in it. It's a growing process."
Even South Carolina head coach Jared Bednar was complimentary of Gwinnett's effort.
"He said this is the hardest-working team they've faced," Pyle said. "So I like where we're headed. We're physical. We play hard. We've got to learn to think the game and play smarter. If we do that, we're fine."