CHARLOTTE, N.C. - It took until the last game of the regular season for the Gwinnett Gladiators to lay their claim to a spot in the ECHL Kelly Cup playoffs. Seventy-two games all came down to one. Win, and they were in.
They won emphatically, beating the Charlotte Checkers 3-0 on Saturday at Time Warner Cable Arena. They even had room to spare, thanks to the fifth-seeded Mississippi Sea Wolves simultaneous loss to the Florida Everblades.
Goaltender Joe Fallon collected the first shutout for the Gladiators in more than a year and Gwinnett avoided missing the postseason for the first time in team history.
"I'm just glad we got in by winning," Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle said. "You don't want to be backing in. We played with a lot of passion tonight - you could feel the energy on the bench. The power play came through, the penalty kill was great, Joe played fantastic. It was a good solid team effort."
"We took the hard route," alternate captain Andy Brandt said. "But we came together when we needed to come together and made a push when we needed to. Tonight we played as a group of 18 men."
The Gladiators came out with determination not seen through much of the season, pressuring the Checkers from the drop of the puck.
On a power play in the first period, defenseman Jeff Mason's solid shot from the point rebounded out to the slot, where winger Brandon Kaleniecki then had an wide-open net. The team's celebration of that goal had a tinge of relief to it. Now all they needed to do was hold on.
After a nail-biting scoreless second period, they added peace of mind in the third. On another power play, Adam Berti jammed home a puck on a scramble in the goal crease just 2:08 into the period.
In the last minute of the game - and the regular season - Dirk Southern sealed it with an empty-net goal.
Fallon posted 32 saves, many of them difficult, for the shutout.
The Gladiators advance as the fourth seed to take on the top-seeded Everblades in the first round of the playoffs beginning Friday in Estero, Fla.
"Everyone bought in and we want to carry that into the Florida series," Pyle said. "We know it's going to be a tough one, but I'm just happy for these guys. You don't want to work six months for nothing."
The Everblades may be the top team in the league, but they are beatable, Pyle argued.
And now all teams are back to 0-0.
"You have to be willing to sacrifice every little thing you have," Pyle said. "And that's a hard thing. If you can go in there with passion and outwork them and be physical with them, you can frustrate them. I feel that we can beat anyone when we're on our game.
"We're not going in there to lie down."
SideBar: GLADIATORS 3, CHECKERS 0
First Period - 1, Gwinnett, Kaleniecki 12 (Sullivan, Mason), 15:34 (pp). Penalties - Carroll Chr (hooking), 4:30; Lucyk Chr (slashing), 15:12; Looby Gwt (tripping), 19:27.
Second Period - No Scoring. Penalties - Scuderi Chr (delay of game), 3:27; Marchesi Gwt (hooking), 7:29; Berti Gwt (holding), 9:12; Bateman Gwt (tripping), 14:22; Lucyk Chr (holding), 17:26.
Third Period - 2, Gwinnett, Berti 13 (Zanoski, Mason), 2:08 (pp). 3, Gwinnett, Southern 14 (Berti, Kaleniecki), 19:32 (en). Penalties - Hillier Chr (slashing ), 1:58; Brandt Gwt (tripping), 11:42; Fox Gwt (hooking), 15:28.
Shots on Goal - Gwinnett 12-16-2-30. Charlotte 10-9-0-19.
Power-play opportunities - Gwinnett 2 of 5; Charlotte 0 of 6.
Goalies - Gwinnett, Fallon 17-14-1-1 (19 shots-19 saves). Charlotte, Jakaitis 23-15-2-5 (29 shots-27 saves).
A - 9,841