Photo: Amanda Hertel<br> Gwinnett Gladiators' forward Andy Brandt (41) scores on Florida goalie Bobby Goepfert (41) as both teams crash the net Friday at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
DULUTH — A loss for any team in the Gwinnett Gladiators’ position in the playoff race is difficult.
But Friday night’s 3-2 loss to the Florida Everblades before 5,087 fans at the Arena at Gwinnett Center was particularly tough to take.
A win could’ve brought the Gladiators to within a point of the eighth and final Kelly Cup playoff spot. Instead they stayed three points behind Cincinnati and dropped five points behind Florida despite outshooting the Everblades 47-27. The two teams have two more games against each other this weekend at the Arena, beginning with tonight’s 7:05 face-off.
Florida goaltender Bobby Goepfert was one difference in the game. He stopped 45 Gwinnett shots, several from point-blank range, including stoning Patrick Knowlton twice on breakaways and the second with less than a minute to play.
Alexandre Imbeault was another. He scored twice, including the game-winner that deflected in off the skate of Gladiators forward Pat Galivan with 4:13 to play.
But Gladiators coach Jeff Pyle pointed to another factor — a lack of discipline that led to two offensive zone penalties in the second period, one of which helped the Everblades rally from a 2-0 deficit.
“(Goepfert) played great,” Pyle said. “I thought (Gwinnett goaltender Chris Carrozzi) played good, too. It’s just that we need better self-discipline to win those games. That killed us.
“There’s no way we should give up that goal in the third period with three or four minutes left. We can’t make that mistake.”
The goal Pyle referred to was the last in a series of strange bounces that never seemed to go the Gladiators’ way.
Carrozzi made the initial save, one of his 24 on the night, as Imbeault skated in on the left wing.
But the rebound caromed out toward Galivan, who was sprinting to get back in the play, and deflected off his skate and past a stunned Carrozzi at the 15:47 mark.
But the Gladiators’ fate might have been sealed during the second period, when they couldn’t expand on a 2-0 lead despite two power-play opportunities in the opening five minutes, including 1:21 of a 5-on-3 advantage.
It came back to haunt them midway through the middle frame.
Especially after Kyle Kucharski was whistled for holding the stick at 9:12.
Bobby Raymond converted on a Florida power play from David Fischer and Imbeault at the 9:32 mark to pull the Everblades within 2-1.
Just 1:44 later, Florida was on the board again by converting on a broken play.
An errant centering attempt from behind the Gwinnett net appeared to be headed to center ice, but Ross Carlson tracked it down just short of the blue line and sent it back in deep.
Imbeault banged home the rebound after Carrozzi made the initial save to tie the game at 2-2 at 11:16.
Gwinnett still had plenty of chances, even after Imbeault put Florida in front late in the game.
The best came after the Gladiators had pulled Carrozzi for an extra attacker, and Knowlton got behind the Florida defense to receive a stretch pass and broke in alone.
But Goepfert shut the door and was able to keep the puck out of the net even as the Gladiators were buzzing in the final seconds.
“It’s one of those games (where) you outplay a team, you outwork a team,” Pyle said. “You have better opportunities, but you’re destined to lose.”
It didn’t seem that way after the Gladiators dominated the first period, outshooting Florida 13-7.
They finally broke through as Dustin Cameron created a turnover deep in the Florida zone and. Michael Forney crashed the net and occupied Goepfert and a defender, while Andy Brandt swept up the loose change for his 18th goal of the season.
Cameron was credited with the only assist on the goal that put the Gladiators up 1-0 at 18:22 of the opening frame.
Just 21 seconds later at the 18:43 mark, Matt Francis extended the lead to 2-0 when he beat Goepfert with a quick snap shot off his own face-off win from the right circle.