DULUTH -- Despite watching a two-goal lead slip away in the third period, the Gwinnett Gladiators managed to grab two points and stay just ahead of the red-hot Florida Everblades on Friday.
Jeff Jakaitis turned aside all four attempts in the shootout -- and a flurry of other shots -- as the Gladiators defeated Florida 4-3 in front of a loud 3,491 fans in the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
First-place Gwinnett (16-9-6-3) leads the Everblades (18-14-1-1) by two points in the South Division standings and get to do it all over again in today's rematch.
"It was a very interesting game -- and I would not have a smile on my face if it had gone the other way," Gladiators head coach John Wroblewski said. "We've been on the opposite end of that a few times.
"My underlying theme to the guys is that there's a lot of things on that scoresheet that aren't going to look good. But I don't think it was necessarily indicative of guy's intentions. The resiliency is the underlying theme that we have to stick with there."
The Gladiators twice led by two goals, including 3-1 with less than six minutes left in regulation.
But Florida isn't racing to the top of the standings using smoke and mirrors.
The Everblades scored goals 2:15 apart in the late stages and came within an inch of denying Gwinnett even a point.
The Gladiators stymied the league's best power play all night -- most critically on an extended two-man advantage that closed out regulation and held for nearly a minute of overtime.
"They did cash in on some chances, but if you give them that many power plays, that's what can happen," said Dallas Jackson, who scored his first goal of the season and was a terrier on defense all night. "We did a pretty good job killing them off, especially late when we could have given up two points. We pulled together there and got two big points."
Playing with a 2-1 lead for 30 minutes and denied on several premium chances in the third period, the Gladiators finally cashed in with some pretty passing.
A ferocious forecheck again payed off when Nikita Kashirsky and Bryan Brutlag burst into the zone on an odd-man rush halfway through the third.
Kashirsky was first in on the right side and adroitly snapped a cross-ice pass to Shane Sims. The defenseman saw an opportunity to jump into the play and made the most of it. Sims, nearly down on one knee, hammered the feed into the back of the net at 10:35 to push Gwinnett's advantage.
"I was really happy to see Sims stick his nose in there," Wroblewski said.
The Everblades, riding a six-game winning streak, weren't about to quit.
Florida scored just seconds after its fourth power play of the game expired. Scott Pitt was all alone on the backdoor and unloaded on a slap shot at 14:15.
Barely two minutes later, cycling with sustained pressure in the Gwinnett zone, the Everblades tied it on a rebound shot shoveled in by Trevor Bruess.
"I don't think it was a scenario where the guys lost attention or their battle-level wasn't high," Wroblewski said. "I feel like it was a week off of game pace. I really think as the third period got on there, Florida, to their credit, absorbed that momentum that they were given.
"We had exhausted some guys. The penalties overlapped each other, too. So some key penalty-killing guys got way too many minutes. It was a very difficult game to manage. I thought (assisitant coach) Rick (Emmett) did a great job of making sure the 'D' were in as good a shape as they could be back there."
The Gladiators got up 2-0 in the first period and carried a 2-1 lead into the second.
Justin Milo was the beneficiary of some hard work by Tyler Murovich down low and potted his fourth goal of the season at 11:40.
Murovich's hip check in the corner created a turnover, which the Pittsburgh native corralled and pushed over to Milo. Wide-open at the top of the crease, Milo snapped the puck past Pat Nagle.
To the continued delight of the faithful, Sims dropped the gloves with Bruess off the ensuing faceoff. Sims landed several solid blows before the two combatants crashed to the ice.
After that, and in quick succession, deflections gaveth and taketh away.
Just 10 seconds into a power-play precipitated by a scrum in front of the Florida net, Jackson teed up a blast from the blue line. Traffic in the slot caused the puck to change directions and foil Nagle at 16:16 for a 2-0 Gwinnett lead.
Prior to Jackson's tally, the Gladiators had just one power-play goal in their previous 10 games and were 0-for-25 in their last six games.
"He has come on in a big way," Wroblewski said of Jackson. "He is extremely dependable. But I think the biggest thing with Dallas is his overall complete level, his desire to win battles is really high."
But the Everblades also benefitted from a bounce when Jimmy Martin lobbed a long shot toward the net at 17:37. With three Gladiators near the net, the puck caught Will Colbert's skate and slid by Jakaitis.
Gwinnett's 2-1 lead held -- despite having gotten off just one shot by the halfway point -- through a long and contentious second period.
The Gladiators weathered a spate of penalties early and Jakaitis denied all comers, including a one-on-one breakaway try from Leigh Salters in the final minute.
The ups and downs of the third nearly overshadowed what was a well-played game overall.
"We're feeling pretty good," Jackson said. "It was a pretty interesting game with them getting all those power plays late and us blowing a two-goal lead late. But all in all I think we outplayed them tonight. I think we deserved the two points."