DULUTH -- Joey Haddad slammed up against the boards in wild celebration, the puck in the back of the net with 16.5 seconds left in regulation and South Carolina goalie Ryan Zapolski flat on his face in the crease.
With one final push in the dying seconds of Game 2, Doug Jones flipped a centering feed from the point to Haddad. Charging into the slot, Haddad smashed a wrist shot into the back of the net and sent the 3,454 on hand into delirium.
Haddad's goal gave the Gwinnett Gladiators a thrilling 3-2 win and a 2-0 lead in their opening-round playoff series Saturday at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
"Everyone was just so happy," said forward Ryan Ginand, who had a goal and an assist in the win. "We worked pretty hard, but I don't think anyone wanted to go to overtime. So yeah, it was definitely a relief."
It looked like the game was headed beyond regulation, reminiscent of last year's first-round battle with South Carolina in which the Gladiators did not end up on the winning side of two OT games.
Then Haddad had a step on the defense and leaned into the shot.
Even goalie Louis Domingue raced over to the bench to meet Haddad.
The Stingrays used their timeout and Zapolski, the ECHL's rookie and goalie of the year, slammed the door to the bench as he was pulled for the extra attacker.
But Gwinnett killed the final seconds as the crowd roared.
"The theme here is unfinished business," Ginand said. "It's contagious in this locker room, the desire to win. When you have guys like that on the team, it goes from one person to the other, that working hard factor. Go until the whistle blows or the game is over. That's what it takes to keep winning."
The best-of-seven series now turns to the North Charleston Coliseum. Game 3 is Wednesday and Game 4 is Friday.
"It was a great goal," Ginand said. "Everyone in this rink was excited to see us go up 2-0. We just have to be ready for that third game there. They're a great team and they have something to prove now."
The Stingrays had good pressure early in the game, but a giveaway cost them. Pounding away in the Gwinnett zone, South Carolina defenseman Ryan Button lost the puck just inside the blue line. Ginand stole it and was off to the races. Ginand rolled in alone on Zapolski, deked to the glove side and went around the stretched-out goalie to tuck it into the far side 6:30 into the game.
"I was just thinking one thing -- put that puck in the back of the net," said Ginand, who was acquired in a trade with Orlando on March 7. "I haven't gotten many opportunities like that. Teams have been pretty tight on me since I've been here and when I get that type of space, I have to produce."
The Stingrays, coming off a 5-0 loss in Game 1, scored their first goal of the series at 14:49 of the first period. Domingue had no chance on a bang-bang play that started behind his own net. A feed from the end boards was hammered home, point-blank, by a crashing Jay Silvia.
The 1-1 score held up through the middle period and despite relatively low shot totals -- Gwinnett had a 19-10 advantage through 40 minutes -- both teams had some chances to break the deadlock.
"We got some bounces in the first," Ginand said. "In the second, they got some bounces. What goes around, comes around."
Ginand again made a big play to give the Gladiators a 2-1 lead. Cycling very well on the power play, Ginand ripped a wrister from the top of the circle that Evan Bloodoff tipped in at 5:31 of the third period.
But South Carolina found another answer. Derek Foam took a low shot from 35 feet that got past Domingue at 9:57. With no traffic to limit his view of the shot, Domingue was demonstratively upset about giving up the goal.
"They're a hard-working team," Ginand said. "Both teams played really hard. Both teams had great chances. It was a goalies' game."