DULUTH — The Gwinnett Gladiators exploded for three goals in 1:40 late in the second period to blow open a close game and roll past division rival South Carolina 6-2 on Saturday night.
Akim Aliu scored the first two of those goals on the exact same play with the Gladiators clicking perfectly on the power play.
Pat Galivan was deep in the left corner and snapped a cross-crease feed to a wide-open Aliu on the backdoor. The Atlanta Thrashers’ prospect made no mistake either time, slamming home the puck at 14:41 and 16:03 to give Gwinnett a 4-0 lead and chase goalie Shane Owen from between the pipes.
GLADIATORS 6, STINGRAYS 2
What happened: Gwinnett scored three goals in the span of 1:40 late in the second period and held on to pick up two big points against South Carolina. Akim Aliu and Michael Forney each sniped two goals in the win. Tim Miller and Pat Galivan added three assists apiece. Miller was a needed spark in a short weekend loan from AHL Chicago.
Larceny: South Carolina goaltender Shane Owen robbed Dustin Cameron just 3:17 into the game and sparkled for the duration. Owen, who backstopped Moncton to the QMJHL championship and a Memorial Cup trophy last season, was on his stomach and reached out with a flashing glove to smother a prime rebound chance by Cameron at the right post. Gladiators’ netminder Edward Pasquale was just as spectacular on a save less than 90 seconds into the second period. With a South Carolina power play just about to expire, Pasquale got to the right post to stone Stingrays’ leading goal scorer Rob Ricci on a point-blank blast that preserved a 1-0 lead.
Temper, temper: With just 2:49 left in the game, the ill will finally fully boiled over with Danick Paquette and South Carolina’s Jordan Pietrus dropping the gloves in a long bout. Each landed a number of solid shots, but Paquette finished strong with some quick lefts and skated off with the decision.
Up next: The Gladiators and Stingrays play for the third time in as many days at 4:05 p.m. today at the Arena at Gwinnett Center. Tickets are available starting at $10.
Owen only allowed the Gladiators one goal a night earlier in North Charleston, S.C., but they got to him in front of an appreciative 7,039 at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
“We played pretty hard (Friday) night and we played really hard with some urgency tonight,” Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle said. “It was a good team effort. The power play has been pretty good lately. It’s just if we’re patient enough to set it up and run it.
“I’ve always told them, there’s something open, we have to find it. We’ve started finding it.”
Michael Forney wasted no time giving replacement netminder Andrew Loewen the same treatment. Andy Brandt poked a pass through the slot and Forney backhanded it in from the same place Aliu scored just 18 seconds prior. It was Forney’s second power-play goal of the game and capped the blitzkrieg at 16:21 of the second.
“We’re a good team when we move the puck,” Pyle said. “When we try to force stuff and take dumb chances, we struggle. So I thought it was pretty good commitment.
“A good win and now we have to duplicate it.”
It was a crucial two points for the Gladiators ,who are battling for a playoff spot with just 22 games left in the season. The win helps them keep pace in the Eastern Conference race, though things remain tightly packed in the lower half of the standings. These teams meet for the third time in as many days at 4:05 p.m. today at the Gwinnett Arena.
“The difference from last night to tonight is we played our systems and we played them really, really well,” said defenseman Cody Brookwell, whose first goal of the season was the crucial second goal of the game. “We didn’t give up anything in terms of offense for them and I think every chance that we got, we buried it.
“It feels good. We’ve had our ups and downs this season. But for us to come out and stop a three-game slide and beat a team that skilled feels really good.”
Gwinnett got its first chance on the power play early in the game when, after a whistle, Grant McNeill punched Ian McKenzie in the face during a scrum in front of the South Carolina net. His fighting major was partially offset by a fighting minor to McKenzie, but still gave the Gladiators three full minutes with the man advantage.
Nearly a minute of that had been squandered when Pyle used his lone timeout.
The Gladiators responded with a goal at 8:09. Galivan was the catalyst, slicing and dicing his way around heavy traffic to get into the slot.
He dished it cross-crease to Tim Miller, who backhanded a no-look pass back to the left post. Forney was there to smack the puck home at 8:09.
“I just said, ‘OK, boys, let’s just settle down. Let’s set it up and run it,’” Pyle said. “Which we did.”
Gwinnett got the game’s important second goal 6:03 into the second period.
“Brooksie’s goal was huge,” Pyle said. “The boys were pumped for him and 2-0 is a different game.”
Miller bulldogged his way into the Stingrays’ zone and dished it to Aliu. Brookwell took up position just inside the blue line and passed back and forth with Aliu. Brookwell got it back right in the wheelhouse and blistered a low shot past Owen for his first goal of the season.
“I’ve got to give credit to (Aliu),” Brookwell said. “He’s an unbelievably skilled player and he opened up that play for me. I just got the chance to shoot.”
The big finish to the second period was tempered by a pair of quick goals from South Carolina in the third, but the Gladiators stemmed the tide and added another tally at 12:06. Paul Flache let fly with a booming slap shot from the point that beat Loewen.
“We got a little sloppy early in the third, but I wasn’t expecting perfection,” Pyle said. “And we regrouped. It was a good team effort.”