DULUTH — Another multiple overtime game.
Another heart-wrenching loss for the Gwinnett Gladiators.
No. 7 seeded South Carolina ended Gwinnett's season at 16:52 of the second overtime Sunday, winning 4-3 and finishing the series 3-1.
Maxime Lacroix, on a cross-ice feed from Chris Higgins, scored his second goal of the game to send a flood of Stingrays streaming off their bench.
To put an end to the No. 2 seeded Gladiators' 93-point season.
To send the majority of 2,652 faithful in the Arena at Gwinnett Center home to wait for next season.
“It hurts,” said Nikita Kashirsy, who scored two goals against his former teammates. “It's the worst thing to lose a series in overtime. There's a goal and you can't do anything about it. You can't take it back. So it hurts.”
Lacroix came into the zone with Higgins, who carried the puck over the blue line. Higgins waited until Lacroix was open on the far side and sent the pass across the slot.
“At first, it was not open,” Lacroix said. “I was even with the guy. I drove the net really hard. I gave it a little extra to get to the net and Higgins was a little extra patient. He put the pass right on my tape for the open net. The goalie didn't have time to move.
“It was a great move and we needed that because guys were getting tired on both sides. Obviously, Friday night's game was tiring. We didn't want to go four OTs again.”
Playing the first two games of the series in South Carolina, the Gladiators won a game to put themselves in good position coming home. But for the first time in team history, Gwinnett failed to win a game on its own ice in a playoff series, falling Friday in the fourth overtime and Sunday in the second OT.
“Sudden life, sudden death,” said Gwinnett head coach John Wroblewski. “It's tough to put into words the feeling when that last goal went in. I just couldn't be more proud of the group, the way that they continuously battled all the way to the end of every single contest and every single challenge we've had this year.
“If we were going to go down at all this year, it was going to be in a situation where it was scratch and claw until the very last second.”
The Gladiators had several premium scoring chances in the first overtime, including a shot just 30 seconds in that bounced off the top of the crossbar. Gwinnett outshot South Carolina 12-7 and had many more opportunities to end it.
The crowd continued to be teased with potential winners at both ends of the ice throughout the second overtime. The Gladiators even had a rare power play when South Carolina fired the puck out of play and was called for delay of game at 12:58.
“We didn't bear down when we had our opportunities,” Kashirsky said. “I had one in overtime. They sacrificed a couple of bodies and hit our guy in front. Then we didn't capitalize on the power play in the overtime and two shifts later, they score the goal.
“It's tough to think about it right now. It's going to be tough for the whole summer.”
Gwinnett had three leads in Game 3, the second longest game in league history which was eventually won by South Carolina 4:19 into the fourth overtime.
This time the Stingrays were the ones getting ahead 1-0 and 2-1 — only to be reeled back in by a pair of fantastic shots on the power play by Kashirsky.
Brett Flemming put South Carolina up 1-0 at 4:35 of the second period, scoring through think traffic on the power play.
Kashirsky tied it at 13:36, driving a dagger of a wrister over the glove-side shoulder of goalie Rob Madore. Defenseman Dallas Jackson helped open up a lane by deking on his powerful slap shot from the blue line and sending it quickly to Kashirsky at the top of the circle. Kashirsky stepped in and buried the chance.
The crowd hadn't even finished cheering the goal when South Carolina capitalized on a turnover at the blue line to regain the lead. Lacroix scored 29 seconds later, but another stick snapped in half gave Gwinnett its second power play of the period.
Once again, Kashirsky tied the game.
This effort was even more spectacular. The 27-year-old Russian went coast to coast, swaggering around the Stingray defenders and sweeping in on net. Kashirsky was at the bottom of the circle, still moving full speed, when he rifled the puck up under the cross bar. The steeply angled shot evened the score 2-2 at 16:54 of the second and lit a fire under the Gladiators.
Gwinnett, despite being down to 15 skaters with an injury to captain Paul Flache in the second, kept the pressure on for the duration of the period. The sustained effort in South Carolina's end was something this usually tenacious team hadn't been able to get for most of the first 40 minutes.
“When you lose anybody to injury when you only have 16 skaters in the lineup, it's going to detract from your ability to create and sustain momentum,” Wroblewski said. “Then when it's a figurehead like Paul Flache, it hurts.
“But you have to look back at the resolve of the club. Guys rallying around it, making sure everybody picks up the slack was, again, something for us to be really proud of.”
Like the Gladiators two nights earlier, South Carolina also scratched out a 3-2 lead. A shot from Higgins down low went in off defenseman Will Colbert's skate just 1:30 into the third.
But it was Colbert who scored the game-tying goal with just 1:40 remaining in regulation. Colbert got a cross-ice feed from Jackson and settled the puck as he drifted closer to the top of the circle. Colbert let a wrister go that clipped a body in front and skittered under Madore, prolonging the game and Gwinnett's season. At least for another 39 minutes.
“In all six overtimes, I liked our opportunities,” Wroblewski said. “The guys stuck to it. At the end of the day, I felt like they might have had a little more octane. And that's something we're going to address for next season. They were a little bit bigger, faster team. I thought that really prevailed as the series got longer.
“We had our opportunities. I just think we lacked that little bit more depth. You also have to look at it from the standpoint that we don't have one affiliated skater in our lineup right now. That's not an excuse. But it surely is the reality.”