Late surge keeps Gladiators in hunt

DULUTH — With the season on the line, the Gwinnett Gladiators went for the jugular.

Less than two minutes after the Florida Everblades erased a precious one-goal lead, the Gladiators scored twice 11 seconds apart.

Matt Caruana's go-ahead goal hadn't even been announced when Matt Francis stuck a dagger into rival Florida.

The Gladiators held on to beat the playoff-bound Everblades 4-2 and keep their own postseason dreams alive Saturday.

Gwinnett will still need some help from teams above it, in the form of a loss or two, but has a chance to climb into the eighth spot with five games remaining.

"I don't think we got nervous or anything," head coach Jeff Pyle said. "In the third, we did what we had to do.

"The guys played hard for 60 minutes. You could just feel the energy."

Although it was a tie game, it seemed a little like a comeback when Caruana gave the Gladiators a 3-2 lead at 11:17 of the third.

Florida's opportunistic offense is a constant threat and a sizable group of Everblades fans were just waiting for another reason to make some noise.

But a giveaway by Florida in its own zone turned the tide.

Big Chad Denny was on the blue line to snag the rolling puck and unleashed a cannon. His low shot was deflected into the net by Caruana and brought all but a conspicuous portion of the 6,287 at the Gwinnett Arena to their feet.

"I kind of closed my eyes when I saw Chad Denny winding up," Caruana said with a grin. "The puck was rolling. I was a little scared. But I just stuck my stick out and it found the corner."

Seconds later, Francis buried a monster shot.

Controlling the draw at center, Francis rolled down Main Street, walked around veteran Ernie Hartlieb and roofed a backhander over Chris Beckford-Tseu at 11:28.

"I think we're playing our best hockey right now," Caruana said. "I hope it's not too late."

The Gladiators started with a spark, but failed to get anything past Beckford-Tseu and Florida got on the board first.

Former Gladiator Milan Gajic zipped down the right wing and snapped a centering feed to Dominic Osman. Left open on a defensive breakdown, Osman rifled the puck past David Brown at 6:50.

"We were taking it to them pretty well, especially the first 10 minutes," Caruana said. "We were getting pucks deep and cycling. It takes a lot away from their offense when we have the puck all the time.

"It was a good start for us — even though we were down 1-0, we still felt very good."

Brown denied the Everblades for the rest of the period and all through the second, including a fantastic save in each period. His efforts allowed Gwinnett a chance to tie it in the second.

"Brownie made some huge saves in the second there," Pyle said. "And that's what you need."

The Gladiators stepped up the intensity with about six minutes to go in the period. The pressure forced Florida into icing the puck twice. On the second one, Caruana won the ensuing face-off and Tom Zanoski corralled a puck tapped into the slot by Pat Galivan. Zanoski went to his backhand as he was turning around and beat an unprepared Beckford-Tseu five-hole at 15:13.

"I think their guy jumped through and left ‘Z' wide open," Caruana said.

Gwinnett kept its foot on the gas and got a power play just as the period was coming to an end.

The Gladiators won another face-off in Florida's end and scored again just 23 seconds into the third.

Cycling in the zone, Adam Berti got a shot off from the right circle. It was turned aside by Beckford-Tseu, but the rebound came to Galivan on the opposite side. Galivan lifted a backhander home to give Gwinnett a 2-1 lead.

"We set ourselves up and we just battled," Pyle said.

The Everblades got even on their own power play at 8:33 of the third.

Shea Guthrie let a surgically placed wrister go from the blue line and it snuck through heavy traffic to catch the inside corner of the net.

But that was the last puck to get by Brown and the Gladiators took care of business on the other end of the ice.

"We've had a bit of a problem this year holding leads," Caruana said. "It was great to see the guys respond as soon as they scored to tie the game up. We came right back and answered with another huge goal again."

As good as it was to take down the Everblades, they'll have to come right back and do it again today.

"We've got to keep winning," Caruana said. "We've got to probably win out. I think if we play like we did tonight, we can do it. Again, our season's hanging by a thread, but we're still keeping it alive."