DULUTH - On his first shift of the game, Myles Stoesz had the puck behind South Carolina's net and swept up to the post.
Stoesz's first point-blank shot was stopped by Stingrays goalie Ian Vigier, but Stoesz persevered and flipped the rebound home.
The gritty forward celebrated like a guy scoring his second goal of the season and the Gwinnett Gladiators carried that momentum through for a 2-1 win over South Carolina on Monday afternoon.
"We just got the puck in deep," said Stoesz, who was out on a hard-hitting line with Dan Sullivan and Chris Cava. "That's all we do, get the puck deep and go to work. And it paid off.
"I've tried that (move) probably, I don't know, 25 times, just stuffing it from behind the net and finally it worked."
A big weekday crowd of 5,734 at the Arena at Gwinnett Center - made up mostly of kids off from school for Martin Luther King Jr. Day - was treated to 60 minutes of excellent hockey.
Both teams played well, but the Gladiators came out just ahead of South Carolina for the third straight time.
Getting goals from Stoesz on the checking line and the eventual winner on the power play by Jeff Mason was a departure from the norm. Pairing that with outstanding work from goaltender Joe Fallon equaled a big win for the Gladiators heading into the ECHL All-Star break.
Gwinnett (16-17-4, 36 points) snapped a two game losing streak and pushed its lead over Mississippi to three points. The Gladiators still have played one fewer game than the rest of the South Division and are just four points behind third-place Charlotte.
"It was a good win," Gwinnett head coach Jeff Pyle said. "We played hard. We were a little undisciplined at times. But a huge goal by Stoeszer to take some of the pressure off and then the power-play goal by (Mason). And our penalty kill has been phenomenal. Part of that is Joe, too.
"We played real smart and just did what we had to do."
Stoesz got the ball rolling 2:01 into the game. He punched his arm into the air and was grinning all the way to the bench. The rest of the team seemed to take as much joy from the goal as Stoesz and didn't let it go for naught.
"It's huge, because I know the guys get fired up," Pyle said. "He's struggled at times, but you know his heart's always in the right place and the guys like to see him do well."
The Gladiators played with the 1-0 lead for the next 47 minutes, 58 seconds.
They held that slim margin through six South Carolina power plays, helping support Fallon with a smart, tenacious effort. Fallon, in turn, was rock solid between the pipes.
"We kept getting more momentum," Stoesz said, pointing to two fights from unusual suspects in the second period.
Matt Siddall fanned the animosities with a monster hit at the end of the first period and dropped the gloves with Mike Curry 2:54 into the period.
Brennan Turner went with South Carolina enforcer Nate Kiser at 13:27, but only after the player Turner was initially jawing with skated to the bench.
Kiser hopped off the bench for what became a line change and went right to Turner. The two big men traded a few swings before going down to the ice.
The Stingrays (21-13-4, 46 points) came inches from tying the game on their sixth power play, five minutes into the third, thunking a shot off the crossbar just as the penalty ended.
Less than two minutes later, Gwinnett went on the power play and Mason gave the Gladiators a bit of breathing room. Dirk Southern snapped a centering feed from the corner to Mason, who was uncovered in the slot. Mason pulled the trigger and beat Vigier at 9:59.
"Dirk made an unbelievable pass," Mason said. "I wanted to shoot far side from where the puck was coming, I knew that. After that it was just try to get good wood on it and snap it that side."
It was important for Gwinnett's power play, once the very best in the league, to convert. The Gladiators remain ranked in the lower third of the ECHL on the power play, but improved those numbers with a 1-for-3 performance against South Carolina.
"It was nice to finally get one (on the power play)," Stoesz said. "We kind of sat back a little bit after that goal, which led to them scoring, but that goal was definitely a good cushion."