Gwinnett’s Justin Weller checks Wheeling’s Carter Rowney in the Gladiators’ 4-1 win over the Wheeling Nailers on Friday at the Gwinnett Arena. (Photo: Amanda Hertel)
DULUTH — Riding high from a promising win over conference leader South Carolina, the Gwinnett Gladiators carried the momentum into Friday’s game and beat Wheeling 4-1.
Playing before 5,263 at the Arena at Gwinnett Center, the Gladiators scored twice on the power play and won consecutive games for just the second time this season.
The power play, after a dismal start, has come on recently. The Gladiators are 7 for 30 — a stout 23.3 percent — on the man advantage over the last eight games. Special teams certainly went a long way toward handing Atlantic Division-leading Wheeling a loss.
“It was obviously big to get that first win after the (holiday) break,” said defenseman Rob Kwiet, who had two goals and an assist. “Hockey is such a momentum game and you’ve got to feed off whatever you can, whether it’s a blocked shot or a power play or a big save. Momentum is huge in hockey and I think it definitely helped us tonight.
“Everybody worked hard for sure. You can’t live off of just one win.”
Kwiet, after scoring on the power play midway through the third period, added an unassisted empty-netter in the game’s final seconds. He also assisted on the opening tally, helping give Gwinnett a lead it never ceded.
But there’s no time to savor the victory. The Gladiators got on the bus at midnight for a game Sunday in Fort Wayne. Then it’s a stop on New Year’s Eve in Evansville.
“We’ve got a big game in Fort Wayne,” Kwiet said. “It’s even bigger for me because that’s where I came from (in a Dec. 12 trade). So I’m looking forward to that game. We’ve got two big road games this week so it’d be nice to get eight out of eight points.”
The Gladiators scored on their first shot of the game, beating veteran netminder Alex Westlund 2:56 into the game. Evan Bloodoff was in front to deflect Kwiet’s wrister from the outside. Westlund was recently added to the Nailers’ lineup after spending the last six years overseas. The goalie, who turns 38 today, last played in North America in 2007 for Charlotte, which is why his name may be familiar to fans.
“It’s tough to score goals in that area because it’s a mind-set,” Kwiet said of the space near the net. “Not everybody can play in those areas and rewards will be paid when you are there. So it’s nice to see Bloods in front of the net there and he got a nice goal.”
After the tough start in his first game back, Westlund battened down the hatches and the Gladiators didn’t get another puck past him until a power-play goal at 12:26 of the second period. Joey Haddad was at the post to pop a rebound past Westlund, who made the initial save on Dirk Southern’s offering.
The power play came when Max McKay earned a double minor for smashing defenseman Antoine Corbin’s face into the end boards.
Corbin, who was a huge factor in Thursday night’s win over South Carolina with two goals, was able to stay in the game. In fact, he returned the favor in the final seconds of the period, putting Shane Bakker down on a collision along the wall. He, too, was given a penalty for the hit and Wheeling got it’s first chance on the power play to start the third period.
Gwinnett killed it off, but right away was down a man for four minutes after Brenden Walker incurred a double minor for high sticking. Wheeling scored in the first two minutes to narrow the gap to 2-1 at 5:20, but the Gladiators didn’t give up a second goal while short-handed.
Goalie Paul Karpowich had no way of even seeing the shot when his defense allowed one of the Nailers to camp out right in his face. Karpowich was completely screened for the low shot by Mike Ratchuk which snuck just inside the post.
But Gwinnett quickly got the two-goal lead back — again on the power play.
Looking for an opening, Kwiet and Corbin dished the puck back and forth from just inside the blue line. It was Kwiet that found a lane and ripped a big blast under the crossbar at 10:51 for a 3-1 lead.
“Special teams wins and loses hockey games,” Kwiet said. “It’s the biggest part of hockey. If you can win those battles, most nights you’ll come out with the win. It was a big focus for us and we’ve been working on it.”