DULUTH -- Joey Haddad's bulldogged efforts on the forecheck paid big dividends as the end of a tight, tie game approached Tuesday at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
Haddad pestered two Florida defenders behind their own net and poached the loose puck.
He cut to the crease and finished the hard-working play with a flash.
Haddad lifted a steep backhander in off the crossbar at 12:07 of the third to push the Gwinnett Gladiators past division rival Florida 3-2 in front of a partisan 2,637.
"The first two periods I think we struggled getting pucks deep and getting to the forecheck," Haddad said. "We really discussed that during intermission and my goal was a perfect example of that. We got the puck in deep, (Bryan) Brutlag was in there, (Nikita Kashirsky) was in there. It was a bobbled puck from the pressure and I jumped on it."
Haddad had 21 goals and 43 points in 50 games last season with Wheeling, but had just two assists before scoring the game-winner Tuesday.
"He's been a guy who has been tenacious on his forechecking, he's been around the puck with tons of scoring chances," said head coach John Wroblewski, who was the assistant in Wheeling last season.
"It'd be very easy for him to get frustrated with his lack of, quote-unquote, production. But my thing is I don't care if a guy has a point a game. We want guys who create momentum."
Goalie Jeff Jakaitis preserved the lead for the next 7:53, most spectacularly on a brilliant glove save with 45.7 seconds remaining. Jakaitis reached out and ripped a point-blank shot from mid-air. Coming off a shutout of Reading on Sunday, Jakaitis made 27 saves for his third win of the season.
"I thought both goalies were good," Wroblewski said. "Both got tested with weird bounces toward the end of the game. I had a great view of that last shot. I saw it bounce out and I thought, 'Oh, there's the corner (of the net).' And there's the glove."
Originally scheduled to wrap up a three-game northern road trip in Reading on Saturday, a snow storm and subsequent electricity outages postponed the game a day. So instead of two days to recover before facing Florida, the Gladiators got one. It showed early.
Gwinnett (5-2-1-0) managed just five shots on goal despite back-to-back chances against Florida's league-worst penalty kill in a scoreless opening period.
The first six minutes of the second period passed with just one shot on goal for each team.
"We lacked a little bit of timing and urgency out of the gate," Wroblewski said.
Things began to pick up when Pat Galivan set up Tyler Helfrich to give the Gladiators a 1-0 lead at 8:13.
Galivan slid along the right-wing boards and cut through the face-off circle. His perfectly placed centering feed found Helfrich in the slot. Helfrich buried a wrister for the second goal of his rookie season.
The Everblades (2-5-0-1) tied it a little more than two minutes later, only eight seconds into a power play, and grabbed a 2-1 lead in the waning moments of the second.
Playing 4-on-4 after matching roughing penalties, three 'Blades came across the blue line in an arc. Alex Hutchings got behind two defenders, camped on the top of the crease and tipped a shot from outside past Jakaitis at 19:15.
"The first two (periods) were a little rough, but we stayed in it and came back for the big third to win it," Haddad said. "It's early in the year and we're a new group of guys getting to know each other, but I feel every game we're faced with a new challenge and we meet that challenge as a team. Tonight was a perfect example.
"We talked as a team (during the second intermission) and we all knew what we needed to do. It's comforting to know going into games, down in the third, we're all pulling in the same direction."
Galivan got Gwinnett even 4:34 into the third.
He swept around behind the net and threw the puck to the middle. It deflected off the skate of a Florida defender to beat goalie Pat Nagle.
"The group can take a lot of pride in getting better as the game progresses," Wroblewski said. "We put quite a bit of credit into our account over the weekend with working extremely hard. We really adhered to a team value over the weekend and I'm a firm believer that the work you put in last week, it shows up not necessarily the next day after you do the work, it shows up weeks and weeks after as well."
The Gladiators don't have another game until Saturday when Reading comes to Gwinnett. Puck drop is set for 7:05 p.m. Toledo is here Sunday.