0

Gladiators return home riding high

Photo: Amanda Hertel Gwinnett Gladiators Joey Haddad begins to celebrate his game-winning goal scored Wednesday against South Carolina goaltender Darren Machesney at the North Charleston Coliseum. Haddad's goal, cheered by teammate Pat Galivan tied the best-of-five series 1-1.

Photo: Amanda Hertel Gwinnett Gladiators Joey Haddad begins to celebrate his game-winning goal scored Wednesday against South Carolina goaltender Darren Machesney at the North Charleston Coliseum. Haddad's goal, cheered by teammate Pat Galivan tied the best-of-five series 1-1.

DULUTH -- It's been three years since Gwinnett Gladiators fans got to see a playoff game.

It's been three years since many of the players got to enjoy the faithful roar their appreciation beyond the end of March.

Fresh off a come-from-behind road win in Game 2 of their opening-round series with South Carolina, the Gladiators must manage the inevitably high emotions playing a postseason game at home for the first time since 2009.

"To me, playoff hockey is all about controlling the highs and lows," said alternate captain and veteran forward Andy Brandt. "We had a low on the first game. We were bummed that we didn't give the effort we needed. Winning the second game late was an extreme high. So we've experienced both.

"It's important that we're managing coming in with momentum. We shouldn't get overconfident. But at the same time, we're excited to be home. It's been a while."

Brandt said several of the players who have been with the team during its postseason hiatus can't wait to be back in front of the home crowd.

"(Pat Galivan) was talking about it, not making the playoffs the last two years," Brandt said. "Man, he was chomping at the bit."

The Gladiators were shut out for the first time all season in the series opener, a 3-0 loss at the North Charleston Coliseum on Tuesday.

"The first night, South Carolina came out with a lot of jam," Brandt said. "I don't know if we were prepared. We came out a little nervous and just not ready to play. I don't know the reason, if it was the nerves and being in the playoffs for the first time for a lot of guys.

"It was a reality check."

The higher seed, Gwinnett opted to play the first two games on the road and the final three, if necessary, at home. It also cuts down on travel during a compressed schedule for the best-of-five series.

Down 1-0 and facing the dangerous Stingrays again Wednesday, the Gladiators were much more the team that won 41 games and earned the Eastern Conference's No. 2 seed.

"The second night it was a must-win," Brandt said. "You can't go down 0-2 in a best-of-five whether you're coming home or not.

"We came out ready to go. They got one on us early, but we responded. We responded well. They actually took a power-play goal away from us that (Tyler Murovich) had for goaltender interference. But we kept working through that, kept plugging away."

Rookie goaltender Marc Cheverie was crucial as Gwinnett rallied from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits.

"Chevs was huge for us," Brandt said. "There was a 2-on-1 (breakaway) save that's a game-changer.

"And the persistency paid off. It was a total team effort. We stuck with it. We were down 2-1 early in the third and the guys, it didn't bother them."

Joey Haddad evened the score on the power play halfway through the third and tipped in the game-winner with 1:51 left in regulation. Haddad redirected a shot by Brandt and the Gladiators held off the Stingrays to tie the series 1-1.

"It was just a little wrister, chest high, and Joey had a good net presence," Brandt said of his shot.

South Carolina came very close to scoring in the dying seconds, but Cheverie reached his arm up as far as possible to send a potential game-tying goal off the crossbar.

"It was a bit of a mad scramble, but it's good to play those games," Brandt said. "It carries a little momentum. The guys are confident now that we've got the first one under our belt.

"We're not going to take our foot off the gas, but guys are relaxed and it feels like there's a weight off our shoulders."

Game 3 is tonight at 7 in the Arena at Gwinnett Center. Game 4 is at 2:05 p.m. Sunday and Game 5, if necessary, will be at 7 on Monday night.

"It's pretty quick," Brandt said of the turnaround. "I think that gives us an advantage. As a whole, as a team, we're better when we're playing more games. We're a well-conditioned team. The coaching staff does an unbelievable job getting us prepared.

"It's been a tense series. It's funny when you look at it, here we are in the first round and we're playing our division. As if we haven't seen each other enough. There's already a rivalry. Now it's amplified. It's win or go home."