DULUTH All three times the Gladiators played the South Carolina Stingrays in Charleston this year, the games went to overtime. Why should a home game be any different?
The Gladiators put away the Stingrays 3-2 in dramatic fashion Friday night, tying the game late and then winning in a shootout. A young crowd of 10,583 the biggest of the season left happy.
There wasn't much to cheer about in the first period.
Defenseman Sam Roberts took a holding penalty, which resulted in a power-play goal by South Carolina. Matt Fornataro wristed the puck top corner from the high slot past Gladiators goaltender Danny Taylor.
"We were too passive in the first period," Gladiators coach Jeff Pyle said. "We didn't battle like we had to until like 10 minutes into the second period. In the second, we had some opportunities, but still weren't sharp. There were pucks on our sticks that we couldn't get to, fanned on.
"A couple times we didn't battle like we needed to. Like off the faceoff the puck would be right there, but they'd out-battle us."
Gwinnett's power play led the league coming into the game at 28.8 percent, but was ineffective against South Carolina.
The Stingrays paraded to the penalty box five straight times, but the Gladiators could not get anything past Stingrays netminder Braden Holtby.
"We got set up and had shots, we just couldn't get them through," Pyle said. "Holtby made saves and that's going to happen some nights. You've got to run it and set it up the same every day.
"That's a good team over there. They have experience, they play simple, don't turn the puck over a lot."
Stingrays coach Cail MacLean echoed the same from the other end of the arena.
"(The Gladiators) have a very skilled power play and our plan was not to put them on it," MacLean said. "Unfortunately that plan fell through in the second period. We just stayed in our lanes, tried to keep them to the outside. Your goaltender is your best penalty killer, and ours was tonight."
In the third period, the Gladiators finally broke through.
Standing on the blue line, Aaron Brocklehurst one-timed a pass from league assists leader Brad Schell, putting the puck in high from over 60 feet out. The celebration was vigorous, but short-lived, as the Stingrays took a similar shot which Taylor got a piece of, but it trickled past him into the net.
"We tie it, and then we have a breakdown in our zone, we don't cover our point," Pyle said. "It's a simple job do your own job, not someone else's. I thought at that point we were done, because we had worked so hard to tie it. But I give the guys credit, they don't quit."
"Both teams battle hard," MacLean said of the four extra-session meetings between the teams. "Nobody lets up, we go right to the end. Both teams have some skill mixed in with other elements, and both work hard and don't quit."
The Gladiators took a timeout and pulled Taylor in the waning minute, and the move paid off as they scored with just 36 seconds to go in regulation.
Overtime was scoreless, so the teams went to the shootout. The Stingrays missed wide, hit the crossbar and fumbled the puck in their attempts, but the Gladiators were money.
"In the end, it's two points," Pyle said. "It's a big win."
Holtby stopped 33 of 35 and Taylor stopped 26 of 28. Emergency backup goaltender Cole Dye was brought in due to Josh Johnson's illness. A longer-term solution may need to be found beyond this weekend, as Johnson works through post-concussion symptoms.
The Gladiators will try again tonight against the Elmira Jackals. It is the Jackals only visit to Gwinnett this season.