Photo: Dale Zanine
Gwinnett Gladiators forward Tim Miller (18) and South Carolina Stingrays forward Jordan Pietrus (7) engage in a fight in the first period Friday night.
DULUTH — Aaron Bendickson and Derek Nesbitt put on a show and a crowded Arena at Gwinnett Center was plenty appreciative.
Bendickson set up Nesbitt on three goals, including two short-handed, and the Gwinnett Gladiators crushed South Carolina 6-2 in their home opener Friday night.
The duo’s combustible efforts rallied Gwinnett from an early deficit and kept the Gladiators unbeaten in the young season.
“We’re pretty fun to watch,” head coach Jeff Pyle said. “It’s not perfection, but we’re learning from our mistakes. That’s why it’s exciting for me. It’s fun. This team is just a real coachable team. They want to learn, they listen. We’re only going to get better, I think.
“I think we sent a pretty good message tonight.”
The entertainment began halfway through the first period with Act 1.
Down 1-0 on a Stingrays’ power-play goal and again on the penalty kill, Bendickson stole a puck in the neutral zone. He quickly dished it to Nesbitt, who was moving down the middle of the ice. Nesbitt walked in and snapped a wicked wrister past goalie Todd Ford at 10:37.
“(Bendickson) is just a smart kid and I’ve given him all the confidence in the world,” Pyle said. “He’s understanding, learning and he’s in positions that he hasn’t been in before. So he’s getting a lot of ice time and he’s taken full advantage of it.
“It’s phenomenal the job he’s done. And Nessie, great night tonight. Leadership not only with the goals, but chipping pucks deep, limiting turnovers.”
Act 2 came 51⁄2 minutes into the second period.
Ford gave up a long rebound on a shot by Bendickson and Nesbitt gathered it in.
He handcuffed the goalie with a forehand-to-backhand move and lifted the puck top shelf for a 2-1 lead.
After an unassisted goal by Michael Davies at 8:11, Act 3 was smoothly executed and staggeringly effective.
Once again on the penalty kill, Bendickson hustled to a puck inside the Gladiators’ blue line and fought to keep control while getting around the defender. Digging hard through the neutral zone, Bendickson got loose and had Nesbitt on his wing for a 2-on-1 chance. Bendickson held the puck until the last moment and snapped the puck over to Nesbitt. Ford had no chance on the split-second shot and Nesbitt’s second short-handed goal completed the hat trick at 11:41.
“The goals we connect for, I guess we complement each other,” Nesbitt said. “He handles it so well and carries it long enough, just has that patience, that if I keep my patience, I’ll get it back.
“We ended up with clear-cut 2-on-1s, just shows our speed. And you have to have patience there, too.”
The Gladiators got off to an uninspiring start in front of the large, partisan crowd. They were caught deep in their own end for much of the first 21⁄2 minutes and then gave up a power-play goal after being called for delay of game.
A shot from the point was deflected past goaltender Chris Carrozzi. Defenseman Will Colbert was camped on the doorstep with Nikita Kashirsky and Carrozzi had no chance when the puck changed direction at point-blank range. Kashirsky was credited with the goal at 4:16.
“It’s early in the season, we’re a little scrambly,” Pyle said. “But I don’t care. I feel so calm. I feel so confident for these guys. It’s just a different feeling. I don’t care if people trust what I’m doing as long as those guys in that room trust me, that’s all I need.”
Gwinnett didn’t get a shot on net until its own power play more than five minutes into the game.
The Gladiators failed to score on the opportunity, but then Bendickson and Nesbitt went to work. Though they were the headliners, Gwinnett had plenty of strong supporting characters.
“We’ve got three good lines and we’ve got three really good guys sitting out right now,” Pyle said. “We’ve got skill. We have to learn the patience part and we’ll get more discipline, but there’s nobody that can question the heart or the effort.”
Davies’ goal was an impressive individual effort. The rookie forward out of the University of Wisconsin — like Bendickson — corralled a loose puck in South Carolina’s zone and danced into the slot. He ripped the puck into the far top corner, over Ford’s reaching glove.
Nesbitt and Bendickson also assisted on the fifth goal of the game, the one that got Ford pulled from between the pipes. A drop pass found defenseman Paul Flache just crossing the blue line.
Flache buried a slapshot under the crossbar at 16:04 and gave the Gladiators a 5-1 lead.
“Flacher played great,” Pyle said. “And I could sit here and go down the line (of guys that played well).”
Kashirsky got the only other goal for the Stingrays (0-1-0) at 11:15 of the third period, but a power-play goal by Matt Francis with 19.7 seconds left gave the 10,076 fans one last thing to cheer.
The homestand continues tonight with Florida in town. The Gladiators took three of four possible points in the season-opening doubleheader on the road last weekend.
“We’re making statements right now,” Nesbitt said. “Hopefully (the fans) come back. We expected a good crowd — we didn’t know it was going to be great. That’s awesome. You couldn’t ask for more. You just hope they come back tomorrow night. Florida’s going to be hungry. We took three points in their building. They can’t be happy.”