Photo: Amanda Hertel Gwinnett Gladiators Bryan Brutlag, Cody Brookwell and Tyler Murovich celebrate Brookwell's game-winning goal against the South Carolina Stingrays on Saturday night at the Arena at Gwinnett.
DULUTH -- A night after combining with Trenton for 14 goals, the Gwinnett Gladiators tightened the screws and beat archrival South Carolina 2-1 in a nail-biter that went down to the final seconds Saturday.
The Gladiators treated a rowdy 7,732 on hand in the Arena at Gwinnett Center to a thrilling finish, killing off a late penalty and fending off the Stingrays' final, furious push for an equalizer.
"That, to me, is a much more entertaining game than the crapshoot of odd-man rushes and weird bounces," head coach John Wroblewski said. "That was a thorough game. I thought we maybe had just a little more jam. South Carolina played a solid game. They were very good. We played one of our better games.
"With this group in particular, that was for sure the best game we've seen in a few weeks."
Prior to Friday's 8-6 win over Trenton, the Gladiators had lost three straight and four of their last five. Gwinnett (32-17-7-4, 75 points) got two points and then buckled down defensively against the potent Stingrays. Goalie Ryan Zapolski, who was pulled after giving up four goals in the first half of Friday's game, made 21 saves in an impressive comeback effort.
"With everything we do here, it's about making sure we rebound," Wroblewski said of giving Zapolski the start against South Carolina. "Whatever happened yesterday, you have to get better from it. What I thought we needed to do with Zap was give him a chance to go back in there."
The victory also earned a measure of revenge for a loss to South Carolina here Wednesday, a humbling 5-2 defeat which was just Gwinnett's sixth loss on home ice. It was the last regular-season meeting between these two division opponents.
"We owed these guys," said defenseman Cody Brookwell, who scored the game-winning goal early in the third period. "We owed it to ourselves to go into playoffs knowing we can beat this team.
"As far as our confidence is concerned, this was a good game. We'd been struggling the last week with three straight losses. This was big for us."
The Gladiators came out with the aggression and energy that has served them so well this season -- and has been lacking in the last few games.
They outshot South Carolina 16-4 in the first period and capitalized on a mistake by Stingrays' star goalie Philipp Grubauer to grab a 1-0 lead.
Grubauer went behind the net to play the puck and winged it off the boards where Pat Galivan pounced on it. Galivan flung a quick shot on net, before Grubauer could get back in position, and collected his team-leading 23rd goal of the season unassisted at 6:39 of the first.
The 1-0 lead held through the second period despite South Carolina getting three chances on the power play and the shots nearly even (9-7 in favor of Gwinnett).
The Gladiators got a bit of breathing room early in the third with Brookwell's third goal of the season. Playing 4-on-4 with more space on the ice, Brookwell got a head-man pass from the point and was in ahead of everyone. One-on-one with Grubauer, the big blueliner let go of a low, heavy shot from the slot. Grubauer didn't get all of it and Brookwell gave Gwinnett a 2-0 lead just 1:40 into the final period.
They needed it. South Carolina broke up the shutout bid at 7:51. Pierre-Luc O'Brien, the Stingrays' leading goal scorer, backhanded a bouncing puck from just on top of the crease to make it 2-1.
"That's the kind of game we expected from them," Brookwell said. "They are a hot team right now and we knew it coming in. That being said, I think we played to our strengths perfectly. We're not a run-and-gun team. Games like (Friday) never happen. I think that's the most goals that have ever been scored against us.
"For us to come out here tonight and get a 2-1 victory is big."