DULUTH — Down to 15 skaters and already eliminated from playoff contention, the Gwinnett Gladiators found themselves with an ever-increasing hill to climb in their home finale Friday.
Down 2-0 after a period and 4-0 just 6:40 into the second, a team that never quit working despite its travails this season put up another valiant effort.
As it was for the season as a whole, they came up short.
Playing conference-leading Greenville for the second straight night, the Gladiators didn’t have enough in the tank and lost their penultimate game 4-1 in front of 6,256 faithful at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
“After the fourth (goal), we started working, we started getting pucks deep and we were a little more aggressive,” head coach Jeff Pyle said. “But in the end, it’s going to be tough sledding to come back against that team from down 4-0.
“I was glad we got the first one to give us a little energy and I was hoping we’d get something early in the third. But I’ve never seen so many pucks (bounce the wrong way).”
The Gladiators close out the season, their second straight without playoffs after making it six years in a row, in Greenville tonight.
“You’ve got to be better early and then you need goaltending,” Pyle said. “But again, I was glad we worked hard and didn’t quit. The first 30 minutes we were sloppy and a lot of that has to do with being young. We had eight rookies playing tonight.”
As though being short-handed wasn’t enough of a handicap, a pair of bad bounces — one freakishly so — put the Gladiators in a 2-0 first-period hole.
The first was a pin-balling puck that came out of the corner and hopped onto the stick of Shane Harper. The forward posted his 20th goal of the season with a wrister that beat goalie Garrett Zemlak short side at 6:13.
The second was perhaps the worst in the building’s eight-year history. Sean Berkstresser’s shot from the right face-off dot was deflected by a defender’s skate. The puck hit at stanchion on the end boards and fluttered about eight feet in the air. End-over-end it headed right for the net and rolled in off the back shoulder of a discombobulated Zemlak at 11:46.
“We got no goaltending early,” Pyle said. “I feel bad for Zimmer, but the second one and the fourth one, I know it’s a bad bounce, but it can’t happen. You could see how fragile we are. You could see we were kind of scrambling around a bit.
“And that’s a good team over there. They’re No. 1 for a reason and if you don’t get goaltending, you’re not going to win.”
A manageable deficit quickly doubled, however, on goals Zemlak would certainly want back. They came just 20 seconds apart on consecutive shots and spelled the end of his night just 6:40 into the second period.
Chris Carrozzi, the Atlanta Thrashers prospect, took over between the pipes held the fort and Gwinnett cracked the scoreboard with just 16.9 seconds remaining in the period.
Michael Forney jammed home a rebound during a scrum in front of goalie Nic Riopel and got the Gladiators within 4-1.
But it was just too much of a hole to climb out of.
“I was glad Rozzi came in and shut them down,” Pyle said. “I thought the second half we played pretty hard, but there’s a difference in talent level.”