Photo: Amanda Hertel Gwinnett Gladiators forward Joey Haddad skates in ahead of South Carolina's Scooter Vaughan on his way to scoring the game-winning goal against the Stingrays on March 23. The two teams open their first-round playoff series tonight at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
KELLY CUP PLAYOFFS
Game 1 -- Today, 7:35 p.m. at Gwinnett
Game 2 -- Saturday, 7:05 p.m. at Gwinnett
Game 3 -- Wednesday, 7:05 p.m. at South Carolina
Game 4 -- April 12, 7:05 p.m. at South Carolina
Game 5 -- April 13, 7:05 p.m. at South Carolina*
Game 6 -- April 16, 7:05 p.m. at Gwinnett*
Game 7 -- April 17, 7:05 p.m. at Gwinnett*
The Gwinnett Gladiators are getting another crack at South Carolina, the team that eliminated them in the first round of last year's playoffs.
The Gladiators are once again South Division champs, but this time they are looking to avoid the heartbreak that befell them last season.
The Stingrays, long a division rival, beat Gwinnett 4-3 in back-to-back overtime games in Duluth to win the five-game series. Game 3 went into a fourth overtime and was the second-longest game in ECHL history.
"It doesn't really matter who you play or when you play them -- you're going to have to win four series anyway," said forward Joey Haddad, who scored the game-winner in Game 2 last season. "But on the other hand, we know they're an opponent we want to prove a point to -- prove a point to ourselves, to our fans, to Gwinnett -- that we can beat them, that we can move on."
Both Haddad and head coach John Wroblewski have opened the playoffs against South Carolina for the last three years. With Wheeling on 2010-11, Wroblewski, then the assistant coach, and Haddad ousted the Stingrays on their way to a conference finals appearance.
"Obviously last year was a pretty tough series to take," Haddad said. "We lost in four, but I think we played about 5 -1/2 games. It was a long, grueling series and obviously we came out on the wrong end of that. So we definitely have a lot of motivation."
A handful of players remain from that team, but even those who weren't on the team have heard the talk. They've also battled with the Stingrays all season. The teams played 14 times this year. Gwinnett held a slight advantage with an 8-6-0 record.
"They sit back and play a strong defensive game and wait for their offense," Haddad said. "It's a frustrating game.
"Instead of being patient and playing the game within your system, it's very easy for people to get frustrated. Like, aw, we can't get in the zone, so I'm just going to try to take it. Everybody kind of gets distracted by the way they make you feel with their play. They sit back. They play the trap, almost like the New Jersey Devils of the '90s. It can be a boring, frustrating hockey game."
The Gladiators beat South Carolina and red-hot goaltender Ryan Zapolski 2-1 in the last meeting of the regular season less than two weeks ago. But South Carolina also handed it to Gwinnett in a 5-1 win at the North Charleston Coliseum just 24 hours prior.
So the Gladiators have a fresh reminder of what they can and can't do against the Stingrays.
"The game was almost over in the first period because we came out and we weren't mentally prepared to play a disciplined, frustrating team," Haddad said. "I think with the whole year gone by and this being the second time in two years we're going to play them in the playoffs, we're all a lot more confident than we were a year ago.
"Not just confident in a cocky way that, hey, we're going to win. But confident that we all know what needs to be done and we're all confident that each guy is going to bring what they need to to help the team succeed and win."
Casey Pierro-Zabotel led the Gladiators in the season series with 11 points and Evan Bloodoff scored a team-best four goals.
Goaltender Louis Domingue was 5-2-0 with a 1.71 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage in seven appearances against South Carolina.
Domingue has won his last six straight and seven of the last eight since returning from a stint in the AHL. The Phoenix prospect goes head-to-head with the newly anointed ECHL rookie of the year. Zapolski, who started the season in Gwinnett, led the ECHL in goals-against average (1.64) and save percentage (.942). His numbers were even better in the series against Gwinnett (1.44 and .954), helped in great measure by three shutouts. But his record was even, 4-4-1.
"Everybody looks at the stats -- oh, they have the best goalie and block like 30 shots a game," Haddad said. "I think we'll be mentally prepared enough. We know what to expect. We know how we have to manage the game against South Carolina.
"It's no secret we have a really good team. Not just on the ice, but in the dressing room and away from the rink. Everybody is together and everybody's mojo is pretty high right now. Team spirits are high. Everybody is really anticipating Friday night."
Gwinnett won seven of its last eight games and opens the lengthened best-of-seven series against South Carolina at 7:30 p.m. tonight at home. Game 2 is Saturday at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.