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Gladiators beat league-leaders with emergency backup in goal

Gwinnett Gladiators forward Joey Haddad (27) looks for a loose puck under South Carolina Stingrays goalie David LeNeveu (1) who is assisted by Stingrays forward Kyle Bodie (17) during the first period at the Arena at Gwinnett Center. (Photo: Dale Zanine/Gwinnett Gladiators)

Gwinnett Gladiators forward Joey Haddad (27) looks for a loose puck under South Carolina Stingrays goalie David LeNeveu (1) who is assisted by Stingrays forward Kyle Bodie (17) during the first period at the Arena at Gwinnett Center. (Photo: Dale Zanine/Gwinnett Gladiators)

DULUTH — Gwinnett Gladiators starting goaltender Peter Delmas went down with a leg injury three minutes and 30 seconds into the second period against league-leading South Carolina.

Emergency backup Matt Cooper was pressed into sudden duty and held on for the nail-biting duration, earning the Gladiators a huge 3-2 victory Friday night.

“The sense of urgency over all 60 minutes was pretty good tonight,” head coach Rick Emmett said. “We had our moments where we bend in the D-zone, but that’s the game. You’re going to bend. The guys did a good job playing three periods tonight.”

On paper, it was a true David vs. Goliath. Longtime AHL goalie David LeNeveu in net for the ECHL’s best team. Playing against an emergency backup with just two pro games under his belt and the South Division’s basement dwellers.

Goliath went down this time, too.

“Realistically, they’re missing a lot of key players up front,” Emmett said of South Carolina. “But for Matt to come in and be in a situation like that was obviously big for us.”

The Stingrays lost in regulation on the road for the first time this season and just the third time overall. But it was also the second straight time Gwinnett has beaten the league-leaders.

“That’s some of the frustration we’ve had all year — we have the group to play the way we did tonight,” said captain Joey Haddad, who scored the first goal of the game. “The frustration sets in when we don’t play like we did tonight.

“Delly went down and I thought we showed good team spirit to pick up our play even more to support Cooper in net. It was really good to finish out that game and get the win.”

The Gladiators helped the young netminder by scoring less than a minute after Delmas fell awkwardly while skating out to play a puck near the faceoff circle. Newly acquired defenseman Antoine Corbin hammered a shot from the point and Maxime Legault shoveled home a bouncing rebound in the ensuing scramble.

The power-play goal gave Gwinnett a 2-0 lead at 4:20 of the second period.

Then in a surprising error, LeNeveu misjudged a hard wrister from the point by Marshall Everson. LeNeveu, who has played more than 300 games in the AHL and 22 in the NHL, went to field the shot and just missed it. The puck slipped over the goal line at 9:10 and pushed Gwinnett’s lead to 3-0.

The Stingrays answered quickly, scoring while Everson’s fifth goal of the season was still being announced to make it 3-1.

Gwinnett defended its lead through an intense third period, helped greatly in a tight game by the new addition of savvy defensemen Corbin and Rob Kwiet. The Gladiators also benefitted from the trade with Fort Wayne that brought forwards Bobby Hughes and Brett Lyon in time for the game.

“When we made the trade, obviously we’re giving up some great men in (Mike) Embach and (Nathan) Martine,” Emmett said. “They are never easy decisions, but sometimes you just have to do what you think is going to benefit the team. We certainly got some experience with composure with Hughes and Kwiet. Lyon is tenacious.

“Those are all additions I think we needed.”

The game had a buzz from the beginning with the stands packed with local school kids for the annual “Sing for Santa” event.

Fed by a constant stream of oohs and ahhs and cheers from pint-sized fans, the Gladiators delivered a show in the first period.

Delmas made the big saves, including one point-blank on Anthony Collins.

The penalty kill was sharp against South Carolina’s incredibly effective power play.

Gwinnett’s own power play, which has struggled mightily this season, didn’t convert on it’s chance, but applied good pressure and earned several scoring chances.

Then, stuck chasing the puck in their own zone for an extended period, the Gladiators found a way to relieve the tension. A good way.

Evan Bloodoff pounced on a loose puck and burst into the neutral zone. He snapped a cross-ice pass to Haddad, uncovered and a step ahead as he neared the far blue line. Haddad cut through the faceoff circle and unloaded a hard wrister that found a small gap on the short side.

It was the first goal scored on LeNeveu in three games in the ECHL this season. LeNeveu had to turn to see the puck in the net when the crowd let out a roar at 16:21.

South Carolina charged out of the gate in the second period and with the puck coming back into Gwinnett’s zone, Delmas skated out to play it at the faceoff circle. He flung it away into the neutral zone, but lost his balance and crumpled to the ice. Delmas, assigned by the Montreal Canadiens, had to be virtually carried off the ice. He held his left skate completely off the ice and was guided to the bench.

“We don’t have an official word yet (on the status of Delmas),” Emmett said.

It forced Cooper into action and left the Gladiators in need of a fulltime starter. Louis Domingue and Mike Lee are both on callup to AHL Portland. Domingue left earlier this week on his second trip to the Pirates.