DULUTH -- The second longest playoff game in ECHL history ended in painful fashion for the Gwinnett Gladiators.
South Carolina's Zach Tarkir scored 4:19 into the fourth overtime Friday, less than two minutes shy of the league-record 126 minutes and 10 seconds set in 2009.
The Stingrays won the war of attrition 4-3 and gained a 2-1 lead in this best-of-five opening round playoff series. Gwinnett must win Sunday afternoon to prolong its season. Game 5, if necessary, will be Monday night.
Tarkir stepped into a long rebound and sent the faithful home heavy-hearted. Many of the 3,941 in the Arena at Gwinnett Center stuck around through three overtimes.
The number dwindled significantly as the game went past midnight. They were teased with a goal that was waived off 1:10 into the fourth overtime when Pat Galivan batted a puck into the net.
Just a few minutes later, it was indeed over.
The Gladiators led 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 in the first 40 minutes -- only to be answered by the tenacious Stingrays.
Each team got a goal on a big shot from a defenseman in the first period and went into intermission tied 1-1.
Gwinnett's Dallas Jackson was first to bulge the twine, using a deadly combination of power and precision. Jackson laid into a puck meant for Joey Haddad. Pat Galivan was behind the net and sent a centering pass to Haddad in the slot. It went off Haddad's stick and skittered toward the blue line. Jackson stepped up and hammered the puck into the top corner at 6:49.
South Carolina took advantage of a delay of game penalty to goalie Marc Cheverie to tie it at 9:18. Cycling on the power play, Johann Kroll got a feed from Maxime Lacroix and buried a blast.
Play slowed considerably in the second. With no love lost between these two division rivals, every whistle degenerated into a bout of pushing and shoving.
But in between those scuffles, three more goals were scored.
The Gladiators grabbed a 2-1 lead at 8:12 when Andy Brandt had a rebound land right on his stick. All alone above the crease, Brandt had a wide-open net and the play seemed to happen in slow motion.
Brandt's reaction was immediate though.
And the Stingrays' response wasn't too far behind.
A shot off the end board ricochetted to Matt Scherer, who was near the post. Scherer backhanded the puck on net and it chipped Cheverie's skate on the way in at 10:51.
Gwinnett again eked out a one-goal lead when Paul Flache's wrister from the wall was deflected by Jacob Drewiske on the doorstep at 15:18.
South Carolina kept pressure in the Gladiators' zone to start the third and reaped the benefits. Dustin Stephenson got a chance from the top of the circle and threaded a hard shot through traffic to tie it 3-3 just 2:15 into the period.
The next goal didn't come for another 82 minutes.
The Gladiators drastically outshot South Carolina in the first overtime, keeping play buzzing around goalie Rob Madore. The number of chances were even greater than the 15-5 shot difference, but Gwinnett couldn't cash in.
The trend continued in the second overtime. The Stingrays, despite a handful of opportunities, didn't register a shot on goal for the first 10 minutes of the period. The Gladiators, playing without one of their top-five point-producing forwards, had just four shots of their own and the fatigue factor slowly eroded the pace of the game. Justin Milo, who had 45 points in the regular season and had a goal already in the series, missed the game in observance of Passover.
The teams combined for just nine shots in the second OT and not much more in the third as they played the equivalent of two full games back-to-back.