DULUTH -- Down two goals after a lackluster first period, Gwinnett Gladiators captain Paul Flache lit a fire.
The towering defenseman dropped the gloves with Greenville's Jason Wilson 15 seconds into the second period and sparked a furious comeback.
Gwinnett scored four unanswered goals to bury the rival Road Warriors and maintain their grip on first place in the Eastern Conference. The Gladiators treated the 6,122 faithful on hand to a 4-3 victory in the regular-season home finale Saturday at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
The win also clinched a playoff berth for the Gladiators, returning them to the postseason after a two-year absence.
"It's what we all play for," Flache said. "Every single year, you want to be a part of it. Last season, (Greenville) won the conference against us. We were there and I remember them saying, 'Your first-place Greenville Road Warriors.' We were out of the playoffs and it was gut-wrenching."
As thrilling as the comeback was, keeping it was more intense.
The Gladiators held the 4-3 lead for the entire third period.
Each minute the tension built. Each minute Gwinnett prevailed.
"It's a lot harder to watch from the stands," Flache said. "Every time it gets in your zone, you're just thinking, 'Get it out. Get it out.' It was definitely an exciting hockey game. Both teams played well and that's what it's all about."
Goalie Marc Cheverie was fantastic down the stretch.
He stonewalled Chris McKelvie point blank on a breakaway with 13:53 remaining.
He stretched out his leg pad to foil Brett Robinson's backhanded offering on the backdoor with 10:10 to go.
He gobbled up three more great scoring chances through heavy traffic and preserved the win.
Cheverie got help though. Especially in the final seconds when defensemen Cody Brookwell and Dallas Jackson both laid out to deny the Road Warriors, who had a 6-on-4 power play for the last 31 seconds.
"That's what our team is all about," Flache said. "We play desperate hockey. We've played like that all year. We find a way to block shots.
"If you don't want to win bad enough to sacrifice like that, you have no chance. No chance."
The comeback started just moments into the second period.
The few times Flache has fought, he has decimated opponents, but always on the road.
This time the veteran went the distance with Wilson, landing several hard shots to the head and getting a huge roar from the crowd with an emphatic takedown at the end.
"I've asked him to go about 10 times this season," Flache said. "He's said no every time. And when there's a chance for him kind of get the jump on me, he put me in a headlock and threw two uppercuts before I even knew we were fighting.
"I was a little frustrated by that. But it's part of the game, too."
Wilson got an extra penalty for roughing and the Gladiators scored 30 seconds into that power play.
"The reason you don't see Paul Flache fight very often is he's a very feared individual," Gwinnett head coach John Wroblewski said. "It's not that he isn't out there offering the option to a lot of different players. He challenges quite a few guys and there's just not a lot of takers.
"I can't even count how many times Paul Flache has challenged that young man to a fight and he hasn't answered the bell. As far as the leadership that Paul Flache has, that shows you. If you need a shot blocked, he'll do it. If you need the right words, he'll say them. And if the gloves need to be dropped -- and somebody will actually do it with him -- he'll fight."
Defenseman Sean Duddy's initial shot rang off the post and the crossbar, but Justin Milo was on the far side to hammer the rebound past Nic Riopel.
Nikita Kashirsky tied the game 46 seconds later with a putback of defenseman Corey Fienhage's shot from the goal line.
"We had quite a few scoring chances and Nikita Kashirsky barely missed the cage three or four times," Wroblewski said. "There were numerous other chances in the second that just didn't find a way in.
"But we believe a lot in our club that we really adhere to the value of momentum. What you do the first shift of the second period may not carry over until the very last shift of the second period. I thought we put enough credit into our account during the second period that we were able to cash in a few times."
The teams played tied 2-2 for the bulk of the period -- until Gwinnett scored two more quick goals to take a sudden 4-2 lead.
Some heavy and sustained pressure paid off when Pat Galivan pushed a rebounding puck just over the goal line at 14:57 and Bryan Brutlag put his skills on display to light the lamp at 16:28. Fienhage sprung Brutlag with a stretch pass through the neutral zone. Brutlag danced in and drilled a shot just inside the far post.
"They controlled the first and we controlled the second period," Wroblewski said. "We happened to find the net just one more time than they did."
As they had at the end of the first, the Road Warriors scored very late in the period.Lee Baldwin pulled Greenville within 4-3 on a shot with 35 seconds left, but the Gladiators again didn't let that momentum carry over to the next period.
"It was definitely a series of highs and lows," Wroblewski said. "We broke a little bit in the first period and we rewelded ourselves together and obviously came back stronger. We started to bend a little bit in the third, but never broke.
"Chevie was the mainstay. He was consistent with every single challenge we had there in the third. He was confident. He was outstanding."