DULUTH - Tom Zanoski said earlier in the week that special teams were going to win the Gwinnett Gladiators a lot of games this season.
His efforts went a long way to making that prediction come true as the Gladiators beat the Wheeling Nailers 4-1 on Saturday in their season opener at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
Zanoski scored a power-play goal, assisted on another and had a great breakaway chance on the penalty kill.
But it was the defense that Zanoski credited for the win.
"Our (penalty kill) did a great job," Zanoski said. "I think every fan that was here tonight saw the difference in our 'D'. That's something that I thought was great and won us the hockey game. Our 'D' were great.
"They stepped up on every play. They didn't give their forwards any room. When they play like that, it makes it a lot easier for the forwards to play as well."
Zanoski's three points paced a well-rounded attack that gave a loud crowd of 6,551 plenty to cheer about as Gwinnett's seventh season got under way.
"We all thought we had a decent team going and we played pretty well," head coach Jeff Pyle said. "I've got to give those guys credit in that (locker) room, they did everything they could to win that game.
"We're a pretty hungry team. Everybody has a role and some guys were sacrificing a little bit of offense for defense. I just think it's a good team atmosphere. The old saying is, 'No matter who scores, we all get to put our arms up.' That's the mentality these guys have."
The Gladiators took a 1-0 lead on the game's first legitimate scoring chance.
Brad Schell was low in the left corner and snapped a cross-crease feed to Drew Paris. The rookie defenseman was waiting at the bottom of the opposite face-off circle and one-timed a cruise missile past Wheeling goalie Jordan Alford at 3:49.
"Every 'D' we have is a good offensive 'D'," Zanoski said. "They know when (to jump into the play) and when not to do it. They're smart about it."
Gwinnett failed to add to that lead though, despite outshooting Wheeling 13-2 and enjoying four straight minutes on the power play, most of it to start the second period.
Wheeling tied the game on just its fifth shot on goal, a one-timer ripped past Josh Johnson by T.J. Fox at 7:20.
But Fox was called for holding just a few minutes later and Gwinnett made good on its third man advantage.
Zanoski walked in from the wall and released a well-placed wrister at the face-off dot. Zanoski roofed his shot and restored the Gladiators' lead with just 11 seconds left on the power play.
Adam Berti assisted on that goal and on the one early in the third that effectively closed the door on the Nailers.
Matt Caruana capped a
tic-tac-toe play from Berti and Zanoski at 5:09 to give Gwinnett a 3-1 margin.
"Berts and I played together last year and we've just continued where we left off," Zanoski said. "Then we got (Caruaua) on the backdoor and it's instant chemistry. We worked together and talked a lot."
Zanoski was awarded an empty-netter with 10 seconds left when he was hauled down on a breakaway. It drew one final cheer from the faithful and kept the Gladiators unbeaten in season openers.
"Johnny (Johnson) played great, made the big saves when we needed him," Pyle said. "I was happy for him and just for all of them. It's a good group. It's a lot of fun right now. I know it's only one game but it's just fun to watch them. You can see they really want to learn."
SideBar: Instant Replay
Gladiators 4, Nailers 1
What happened: The Gwinnett Gladiators scored first, less than four minutes into the game, and then used two power-play goals to beat the Wheeling Nailers in their season opener Saturday at the Arena at Gwinnett Center. Wheeling, which lost in South Carolina in its opener Friday night, briefly tied the game in the second before Tom Zanoski and Matt Caruana lit the lamp on the power play.
Pivotal moment: Zanoski's power-play goal at 11:25 restored Gwinnett's lead just a few minutes after Wheeling tied it 1-1.
Five for fighting: In a first period low on scoring chances, Tim Miller provided a jolt with a spontaneous glove drop. Miller, on assignment from AHL Syracuse, went a round with Wheeling's Andrew Lord in the midst of play at 17:23. Miller landed all the solid blows in the tilt, including two big right crosses at the end. The 22-year-old from Michigan drew a huge roar from the crowd as he finished with a takedown of Lord.
Highlight reel: Zanoski got in the lane and intercepted the puck with Gwinnett on its first penalty kill seven minutes into the game. He quick stepped his way through the neutral zone on a breakaway as the crowd rose to its feet. Zanoski danced his way around a defender with a toe drag and shoulder shimmy and managed to get two scoring chances out of the effort. He didn't score, but it effectively killed the rest of the Nailers' power play and showed off some of Zanoski's talents.
Save of the game: Goalie Josh Johnson wasn't tested at all in the first period, but answered the bell with Gwinnett on the penalty kill in the second. He made consecutive stretching pads saves to preserve the Gladiators lead. Johnson finished with 14 saves.
Streaking: The Gwinnett Gladiators have never lost a season opener in regulation. In seven seasons, they are 6-0-1.
Next up: A rematch with Wheeling, affiliate of Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh, at 4 this afternoon at the Arena at Gwinnett Center. The Gladiators aren't at home again until Oct. 30 and play three consecutive road games at South Carolina on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday.