Photo: Amanda Hertel Gwinnett netminder Jeff Jakaitis mades 31 saves in the 3-2 victory over the Greenville Road Warriors Monday at the Arena at Gwinnett.
DULUTH -- The seconds ticked down and the crowd noise built until the final horn was drowned out and the Gwinnett Gladiators celebrated a hard-fought 3-2 win over Greenville in an afternoon showdown Monday.
The 5,698 on hand in the Arena at Gwinnett Center were treated to a strong performance and a nail-biting end as the Gladiators took over sole possession of first place in the South Division standings.
It was the second straight win for Gwinnett over the Road Warriors, who took two from the Gladiators in Greenville over the weekend.
"A win or a loss in any game is huge," said forward Andy Brandt, who scored two goals in the game. "Points are points and they're huge at this point, especially with our division being as tight as it is and all four teams battling. Every night is a battle. It's not like you can come out and take a night off. If you do, you're going to lose."
The Gladiators survived two quick goals by Greenville in the third and nearly six straight minutes on the penalty kill to pick up two big points.
"Obviously the penalty kill did a tremendous job," head coach John Wroblewski said. "From Paul Flache to Justin Milo, they were blocking shots and it was very inspiring to see that. It was contagious on the bench as well.
"That is for sure the reality of special teams. It's always going to be a momentum booster."
The Gladiators built a 2-0 lead with an aggressive forecheck and some spectacular saves by Jeff Jakaitis.
Milo did a yeoman's job creating the chance that his former teammate at Vermont, Colin Vock, capped at 13:26 of the first.
Milo bulldogged his way into the zone and kept it there while help arrived. Flache dug it down to Tyler Murovich behind the net. Murovich, twisting and turning, centered to a charging Vock. The rookie buried his fifth goal of the season.
"I would have liked us to come out with a lot more jam and energy," Wroblewski said. "We had to find that -- and that was addressed after the first period. I thought guys worked really hard into the second period. It got us that nice lead there."
The Gladiators pushed their lead halfway through the second, snapping a 0-for-12 stretch on the power play.
Working on an abbreviated 5-on-3 advantage -- Greenville was called for five minors in the chippy second -- Gwinnett cycled the puck and cashed in at 10:47.
Defenseman Shane Sims held the zone at the wall and got the puck to Nikita Kashirsky in the corner. Kashirsky dished it to Pat Galivan in the near faceoff circle and Galivan snapped a stick-flexing shot toward the net. Brandt, paying the price in the slot, tipped it past goalie Jason Missiaen.
Jakaitis had 21 saves through 40 minutes, but it was one each at the start and end of the second period that were particularly impressive.
Barely a minute into the period, Jakaitis threw out his glove and snatched a sure goal away from Brandon Wong.
Then in the waning seconds of Greenville's third power play -- and with a little more than 90 seconds until intermission -- the Rochester, Minn., native stonewalled Brett Robinson on a point-blank blast.
Gwinnett carried that momentum into the third and scored 14 seconds into the period.
Brandt picked up his second goal of the night, and 10th of the season, with a wrister over Missiaen's shoulder.
Then that momentum took a dip and Greenville didn't waste the opportunity.
The Road Warriors spoiled the shutout on the power play and climbed within a goal, 3-2, just 2:34 later.
The Gladiators took their timeout immediately after Marc-Olivier Vallerand scored into a wide-open net -- courtesy of a defensive miscommunication -- at 6:19 of the third.
"With the timeout, we had to talk about doing a little bit more than they were at the time," Wroblewski said. "It was too often that guys were in the right spots or, quote-unquote, had their man. But they could have done something to help defuse a play, to help their teammates a little bit better.
"That assuredly showed through in that last 8 to 10 minutes with the penalty killing and the 6-on-5 situation (with goalie pulled)."
Three penalties that overlapped to varying degrees left Gwinnett down at least one man for the middle third of the period.
But the Gladiators survived that challenge and bled the clock dry to beat Greenville for the second time in three days.