Photo: Amanda Hertel Gladiator Tyler Murovich battles the Stingrays' Andrew Krelove for the puck in Gwinnett's 5-2 loss to South Carolina on Wednesday at the Arena at Gwinnett.
DULUTH -- Coming off a long road trip and with a roster still in flux, the Gwinnett Gladiators lacked their usual spark at home and South Carolina jumped all over them.
The Stingrays crept ever closer in the South Division standings with a runaway 5-2 victory before a faithful 2,885 on Wednesday at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
The Gladiators left home two weeks ago as the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference. They won seven of eight games in a homestand which allowed them to build a crucial lead. But after going 3-4 since, the Gladiators were reeled back in by the rest of the division.
"We're still trying to reestablish our culture," head coach John Wroblewski said. "Without that, we're in trouble. When we don't everybody going in the same direction, that's not a very good recipe for our club. We've always banked on guys being able to read off each other, guys being on the same page. At this juncture, it's a very difficult battle for us to overcome.
"There's been so much turnover in the roster. It's something that had to be done and now we have to rebuild everything that we've built here."
Falling behind 3-0 in the first period, including a short-handed goal by Mike Hamilton, Gwinnett lost for the fourth time in five games. But it was the first regulation loss at home since Dec. 30 and just sixth all season. The Gladiators (30-17-7-4, 71 points) have been outstanding in their own rink this season and remain here for three games in as many days this weekend.
"What I can ensure is we're going to be better on Friday night," Wroblewski said. "Then when Saturday night comes along, we're going to be better than we were Friday night.
"We're a work in progress. As far as expectations are concerned, we need to re-gauge ourselves every night as to what we expect as far as work ethic, production and results."
They'll need to regroup after Wednesday's lackluster showing.
South Carolina's first goal was a battle won by Chris Higgins at the edge of the crease. Trent Campbell sent a centering feed in from the corner and Higgins forced his stick down in time to bang the puck past goalie Joe Palmer at 8:01.
Hamilton scored short-handed at 10:36, getting into the zone ahead of the sluggish defense and blasting a slap shot from the top of the circle past Palmer.
"They made us pay for mistakes," Wroblewski said. "As far as the momentum of the game went, that short-handed goal is extremely disheartening. Because it's the leaders of our team out there and it's the third game in a row that that unit has allowed a short-handed goal against us in a multitude of ways.
"We're not going to win games with our No. 1 unit getting scored on shorthanded. That's a simple recipe for disaster, especially with a mismatched lineup. But I'm very confident that unit will come out of it."
Continuing to scramble, the Gladiators failed to pick up Pierre-Luc O'Brien alone on the far post at 15:10. O'Brien had a yawning net to fire his 22nd goal of the season into for a 3-0 lead.
That left Gwinnett with a long road back, especially with Philipp Grubauer in net for South Carolina (32-22-3-1, 68 points).
Grubauer ranks second among active goalies in save percentage (.915) and goals-against average (2.31). Only Alaska's Gerald Coleman and the Gladiators' injured Jeff Jakaitis are better than the rookie from Germany.
Grubauer, drafted by the Washington Capitals in 2010, didn't have to make many saves in the win. Gwinnett was still in single digits for shots on net when South Carolina scored again at 9:21 of the second period.
Zach Tarkir boomed a shot from the point past Palmer, pushing the Stingrays' lead to four goals -- a deficit the Gladiators have never overcome in franchise history.
Grubauer was finally beaten 2:50 into the third period during a 5-on-3 power play.
Bryan Brutlag bulldogged it behind the net to find Tyler Murovich in the slot. Murovich buried the chance for his 14th goal of the season, but South Carolina answered at 5:44. Defenseman Johann Kroll's wrister flung in from the blue line foiled Palmer and chased the goalie from between the pipes.
The Gladiators got another goal in the late going, capitalizing on a 2-on-1 rush with Justin Milo and Tyler Kindle. Milo carried the puck into the zone and snapped a pass across the high slot to Kindle. The veteran defenseman beat Grubauer at 15:55, but it was still way too little, too late.
"We still have the right spirit in that room," Wroblewski said. "The spirit of what this team has accomplished to this point. The heart and soul, the multiple times we've come back from deficits that were seemingly insurmountable -- whether that be on the scoreboard or to do with personnel. That spirit still remains in that room and we're going to find it again."