Kalamazoo strikes last in back-and-forth game

DULUTH — The Gwinnett Gladiators traded goals with ECHL newcomer Kalamazoo all night, but it was the Wings with the final parry.

Kalamazoo got back on a winning track and handed the Gladiators just their second regulation loss of the season, 5-4, on Saturday in front of 8,614 at the Gwinnett Arena.

Scott Mifsud scored twice for the Gladiators, including giving Gwinnett a 4-3 lead 6:06 into the third period. Mifsud banged home a second rebound from the crease.

But what head coach Jeff Pyle called an "unbelievably selfish penalty" cost the Gladiators their tenuous lead.

Tom Zanoski jumped Brian McGuirk after McGuirk gave Gwinnett's Adam Berti a shove. McGuirk went after Berti because the big forward had just collided in open ice with Kalamazoo's Sam Ftorek. Zanoski grabbed McGuirk and whaled away on the winger. Berti went for kneeing and Zanoski picked up an extra instigating minor.

The whole sequence gave Kalamazoo a two-minute, 5-on-3 power play. The Wings didn't waste the advantage and tied the game at 4.

Barely two minutes after that, Mathieu Curadeau scored an unassisted go-ahead goal.

Pyle said he didn't even care about the fifth, and winning, tally. It was Zanoski's actions that had him steaming.

"You could blame (the defense) on that last goal, but we shouldn't have even been in that position," Pyle said. "It's the same way we shot ourselves in the foot last year. It's just selfish. The team's got to mean more than anything you're doing out there.

"I've got to find a lineup that's willing to play hard every night for each other, play smart for each other. It's just a disappointing way to lose."

The Gladiators did keep pounding away down the stretch, trying to get even again, but to no avail.

Kalamazoo, which won its first six games of the season before falling in two straight, spent most of the final 5:42 on the penalty kill and hung on to win. Gwinnett finished with 49 shots, but Mifsud still talked about missing chances.

"The first period obviously wasn't our best, but after that, we battled pretty hard," Mifsud said. "It was one of those back-and-forth games and they clogged a lot of things up. It wasn't just a run-and-gun kind of game. We've just got to be a little more patient and pick our spots better."

Goalie Danny Taylor was subject to steady fire in the first eight minutes of the game before Gwinnett got anything going in the offensive zone. Taylor made save after save, but Kalamazoo was awarded a penalty shot at 12:41 and Andrew Fournier took advantage of the opportunity.

In what became the trend, Gwinnett tied it on a power play.

Defenseman Sam Roberts, smartly stationed on the far post, was the beneficiary of a good bounce in the crease and had an open net to shoot at at 15:44.

Mifsud gave Gwinnett a 2-1 lead when he broke in ahead of the ‘D' at 17:54. Zanoski created the opening, finding a charging Mifsud with a centering pass from the point. Mifsud tucked his back-handed try home a moment before he was leveled by the recovering defender. Mifsud celebrated even as he rolled on the ice to collide with the end boards.

But Kalamazoo struck back 20 seconds later, scoring after a defensive breakdown to tied the game again and steal some of the life out of the building.

"We step on on a 2-on-1 to give them a breakaway," Pyle said. "You've got to know better.

"We've got to learn play with a lead. We don't know how. They scored the goals, you've got to give them credit. But we had some real, real brain farts."

After Mifsud's first goal, Gwinnett didn't lead again until his second. Kalamazoo never broke it open, but the top team in the North Division was just far enough ahead at the final horn.

"They've got a good team over there," Mifsud said. "You have a couple mental meltdowns for a minute or two and that's what happens."

Wings 5, Gladiators 4

• What happened: The Gwinnett Gladiators (5-2-2, 12 points) fired 49 shots on goal, but were plagued all night by breakdowns and mental mistakes. Which didn't cut it against Kalamazoo (7-1-1, 15 points), the top team in the North Division.

• Game-winner: Mathieu Curadeau scored an unassisted goal, one that looked like it just rolled off the end of his stick and inside the post, just over two minutes after Kalamazoo tied the game at 4. Curadeau's sixth goal of the season stood up as the game-winner.

• See-saw: The lead changed five times in a back-and-forth battle. No one led by more than a goal - Gwinnett at 2-1 and 4-3, Kalamazoo at 1-0, 3-2 and 5-4 - and the game was tied four times.

• Oh, captain, my captain: Former Gladiators' captain Jeff Mason made his return to Gwinnett. Mason was traded to Kalamazoo in the offseason after playing for the Gladiators for two years.

• First date: Gwinnett had never played Kalamazoo before Saturday's game. The Wings are an established minor-league franchise, but playing in the ECHL for the first time.

• On TV: The Gladiators' 4-1 win against Florida from Friday night will be rebroadcast on TVGwinnett 23 at 7:30 p.m. Monday.

• Next up: The Gladiators have nearly a week to rest and prepare for next weekend's home games against South Carolina (Friday) and Elmira (Saturday).