DULUTH — For the first time since Dec. 30, the Gwinnett Gladiators didn't get two points at home, snapping a franchise-record 12-game winning streak at Arena at Gwinnett Center.
The Gladiators lost a sea-saw battle 4-3 in a shootout with fellow division leader Kalamazoo on Sunday. The Wings, at the top of the North Division, prevailed against the South Division and Eastern Conference leading Gwinnett in a game that was tied three times.
“We had a hell of a run,” said forward Nikita Kashirsky, who had a goal and an assist in the game. “We can't really put our heads down on that. It was a franchise-record and I think we should be proud of it.
“It was a tough one today. They're a good team and they have a lot of experienced guys who know how to win games.”
Gwinnett went to a shootout for the third time in four games and beyond regulation for an ECHL-leading 16th time this season. The Gladiators earned a point, but the locker room was as quiet as after a loss as the team closed out its eight-game homestand.
“It's one of those games where you have to be, I guess, a little bit satisfied with the fact that you got a point,” head coach John Wroblewski said. “But at the same time, I wasn't overly pleased with the means to our execution today and I didn't think that we really applied the things we set out to do. So, for us, the process of getting the point wasn't very gratifying at all.”
Gwinnett was buzzing around Kalamazoo's net and goalie Riley Gill right out of the gate. The Gladiators had four shots on goal and a number of other chances before the Wings got one.
Unfortunately, that one ended up in the back of the net.
Eric Kattelus backhanded a rebound through traffic at 1:58 to beat rookie goalie Ryan Zapolski in his Gwinnett debut.
“(Zapolski) was solid,” Wroblewski said. “I was happy with him. I thought he responded extremely well. That was a tough first goal against, too. It was a really poor track on our part. We duplicated our responsibilities there and left him with a real tough save to make.
“To Kattelus' credit, it was a real nice backhand and a very tough first tough to take. I thought Zap played very well, especially in response to that first one.”
The Gladiators' top playmaker and leading scorer teamed up to tie it back up at 11:50 though.
Kashirsky controlled and held the puck along the wall, waiting for an opening. His centering pass found a wide-open Pat Galivan sliding to the far side of the slot. Galivan had a yawning net and didn't miss on his third goal in the last two games and 20th of the season.
The second period started much like the first — Gwinnett getting good pressure and Kalamazoo scoring.
The Wings carved out another one-goal at 3:58 of the second when Darryl Bootland scooped up a rebound and tapped it behind Zapolski.
“From our standpoint, I didn't think we did the necessary things today for us to create the bounces we have been,” Wroblewski said. “I didn't think our detail was very good. I didn't think our habits were on it.
“For all intents and purposes, it was a pretty lackluster performance with certain inspired players and plays along the way. But it wasn't a continual, man-for-man effort.”
The Gladiators tied it again, cashing in on the power play at 8:57, and gained their first lead on an amazing show of hands by Kashirsky.
Andy Brandt tied it 2-2 on a second rebound attempt that got under a sprawling Gill.
A singular effort from Kashirsky put Gwinnett up 3-2 at 17:28. Kashirsky got a leading pass from Paul Flache and won a battle at the blue line. But the puck was bouncing and Kashirsky was somehow able to settle it and get it out of his skates all with a Wing draped on his back. Then he made an ankle-breaking juke move, deking forehand to lift it over Gill on the backhand.
The buzz generated from that display was dampened by Nick Sirota's shot from the corner that tied it 3-3 with 1:34 left in the period. Sirota beat Zapolski over the near shoulder just 58 seconds after Kashirsky's go-ahead goal.
“We did a lot of things well,” Kashirsky said. “There were a couple moments where we weren't sharp and ready to go. They're a team that can make you pay. They executed on every mistake we made and, of course, were very good in the shootout.”