DULUTH The horn let out a pressure-relieving bellow, goalie David Brown raised both arms in heartfelt victory and his team jumped the boards to celebrate a heroic comeback.
The Gwinnett Gladiators scored three times on the power play, including twice in a third-period rally, to beat the Trenton Devils 4-2 and keep their playoff hopes alive Sunday.
"Thank God for our power play," Gwinnett head coach Jeff Pyle said. "That's our bread and butter.
"I'm really proud of the guys. We could have collapsed. We weren't getting any bounces and we weren't playing all that well. We always seemed to be a step behind. Until we got that second goal."
Down 2-1 with less than six minutes remaining in regulation and having just survived a 5-on-3 penalty kill, the Gladiators began a furious resurgence.
Cycling on the power play, Adam Berti dished it to Drew Paris on the blue line. The rookie defenseman had passed up a number of chances to shoot from that spot before, but uncorked a rocket this time. Dan Sullivan was parked in the high slot and tipped it past goalie Dave Caruso with 5:45 left.
"Most of my goals this year are from that area," Sullivan said. "I've found a home there and when it works, it works. You've just got to have faith in it and when we execute it, we can bury teams.
"We stuck together and Brownie really kept us in the game."
Trenton's Chris Murray leveled Matt Francis with a vicious elbow 19 seconds after Sullivan's 14th goal of the season tied it 2-2 and Gwinnett went back on the power play.
More than a minute had been drained from the man-advantage when a scramble in front of the net gave the Gladiators another chance. Digging away with both teams collapsed around the crease, the puck got through.
Matt Caruana, who was shoveling backhander after backhander at Caruso, was credited with the goal at 15:54.
"I don't even know who got that," Caruana said. "We were all whacking at it. I was just happy to see that go in. It was a huge goal for the team."
Sullivan let out a bellow and was at the center of a mob scene as all five Gladiators rushed to celebrate the go-ahead goal.
"That's definitely one of the more emotional ones I've had," Sullivan said. "I've been part of some comebacks in my life, but this one is definitely top of the list."
An incensed Caruso took the puck out of the net and threw it toward the penalty box. It earned the Roswell native an unsportsmanlike penalty and put Trenton, now down 3-2, on the penalty kill again.
"They took some penalties that, at this time of the year, you can't take," Pyle said.
The Devils got through that though and pulled Caruso with 1:44 still on the clock.
But with just over a minute to go, Caruana corralled a bouncing puck along the boards at Gwinnett's blue line and flipped it about 115 feet into the net.
"There were a lot more chances than I thought there were going to be in the last little bit," Caruana said. "Their organization (a New Jersey affiliate) is known for trapping and playing conservative so I was really surprised that we were able to generate so many chances."
The empty-netter sealed the win Brown's first in five starts and moved the Gladiators just four points out of a playoff berth. They put Trenton behind them and the team they need to catch, Reading, is here Wednesday for a game that could make or break either team's season.
"We feel great," Caruana said. "It's two teams with their season on the line. The way we look at it, every game's a playoff game right now because we can't afford a loss. So we have another huge game Wednesday against Reading, obviously. We'll have a day off and get ready for Wednesday. Our season's on the line again."
Gwinnett's power play picked up where it left off Saturday night and got the first goal of the game.
Mike McLean was at the post, got a feed from Berti and jammed the puck under Caruso at 15:53.
The physicality also continued as two teams battling for their playoff lives met for the second straight day.
Trenton's penalty trouble gave the Gladiators three power plays in the period and McLean's 15th goal of the season came on the second of those.
Gwinnett held that 1-0 lead through intermission, but the second period belonged to tenacious Trenton. The Devils scored twice to go ahead 2-1 with just over four minutes left in the period.
"We were patient in the first period and we played really good defensively," Pyle said. "In the second period, I thought we sucked."
Former Gladiator Jeff Prough got Trenton even at 11:11 during a scramble in front of the net. Prough's shot slid just over the goal line in a disputed play. But after the referees conferred, it was deemed good.
The Devils took the lead on a broken play as they rushed into Gwinnett's zone. The puck kicked off a skate to undefended Slavomir Tomko in the high slot and he rifled it past a screened Brown at 15:49.
Trenton had a 21-2-1-1 record when leading after two periods, but couldn't hold off a desperate Gladiator team.
"Before the third, I just told the boys, here's your challenge, here's your season," Pyle said. "How bad do you want it? And we struggled a little bit, but that goal by Sully, you could just feel the energy when he scored.
"It was a good win."