DULUTH - South Carolina chased its former goalie Josh Johnson from the net in the second period and rolled past the precariously positioned Gwinnett Gladiators on Friday night.
The red-hot Stingrays routed the struggling Gladiators 6-1 before a sparse crowd at the Arena at Gwinnett Center. The only saving grace was Mississippi, which the Gladiators are trying to hold off for the division's final playoff berth, also lost.
It keeps Gwinnett in position for a sixth straight postseason appearance and two points ahead of Mississippi, but the Gladiators are running out of chances after their third straight loss.
Gwinnett has five games left, including a 7 p.m. rematch today at home against South Carolina, which is riding a 8-0-1 streak. The Gladiators, conversely, have lost four of their last five games since earning back-to-back wins over division leaders Florida and Cincinnati.
"The first period killed us," Gwinnett head coach Jeff Pyle said. "From a momentum standpoint, from a confidence standpoint, you could see us start to struggle. But brain farts by guys that we need to be there, our (NHL) contracted guys have got to be better in all phases.
"In the end, as a whole, we didn't play very well, but when you start off like that against that team, you're not going to help yourself. Too many guys that have to be ready, weren't."
The Gladiators were endlessly sloppy in the first period and quickly found themselves in a 2-0 hole.
South Carolina scored 2:21 into the game on a goal Johnson would certainly like to have back. The Stingrays had an odd-man rush with Matt Scherer coming out of the penalty box, but it was Jeff Corey's shot from head-on that dribbled under Johnson and into the net.
Gwinnett had a 5-on-3 power play right after that and failed to do anything with it. The second of those penalties was even a double minor for high sticking. But the Gladiators were caught with too many men on the ice halfway through that and South Carolina scored again during 4-on-4 action at 6:52.
Gwinnett (29-32-6) finally started to get it together in the closing minutes of the first period, but South Carolina goalie Jonathan Boutin came up with a couple of impressive saves to preserve the 2-0 lead.
Two more soft goals in the first half of the second period spelled the end of Johnson's night.
"Bottom line, we make mistakes that put (Johnson) in that position," Pyle said. "You shouldn't have that first breakaway. It was just because we didn't get a puck deep. The second one, I know he wants that one back. But in the end, from a confidence standpoint, you can't start that way.
"You've got to be better and we weren't."
Johnson was replaced by Joe Fallon, who held the fort until the Gladiators were able to crack Boutin with 1:24 left in the second.
Andy Brandt stretched out to tap the puck from the high slot to Travis Fuller on the doorstep. Fuller shoveled a backhanded pass across the crease to Brandon Kaleniecki, who lifted it over Boutin.
But less than a minute later, South Carolina (39-22-6) beat Fallon to slam the door in the Gladiators' face.
Adding insult to injury was another goal 1:04 into the third period. The tally from Travis Morin was assisted by Keith Johnson, who led the Stingrays with a pair of goals. South Carolina is firmly entrenched in second place in the division and already knows it will face Charlotte in the first round of the playoffs.
Florida has locked up the South Division title and only waits to see whether Gwinnett or Mississippi will be its opponent for a best-of-seven series.
"We've got to be better and who knows how we finish," Pyle said. "I can't predict that. I wish I could, but I can't."
All he could do was urge his team to be ready tonight.