DULUTH -- Anemic on a multitude of power-play chances in the first two periods, the Gwinnett Gladiators stepped up on special teams to wrest the lead from Wheeling and walk away with a 6-5 victory on Friday.
Justin Bowers was wide open on the backdoor when a shot from up high hit Joey Haddad in the back and kicked over to him. Bowers had an easy tap-in to tie the game on a power-play goal five minutes into the third.
Haddad set up the go-ahead goal less than two minutes later with the teams 4-on-4.
The former Nailer yelled in celebration as Cody Brookwell banged the cross-crease feed into the back of the net.
Haddad raced into the zone, 2-on-1 with Brookwell on the far side. On the move, he looked and waited and finally snapped it across to the big defenseman on the far post. Brookwell hit the brakes, sent the redirection home and propelled the Gladiators to a come-from-behind win in front of 4,443 at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
"It's always nice when a 'D' steps up like that," Haddad said. "He's not called on for the offense on our team. He's a big, tough d-man who takes down their scorers. But it's always nice to see a guy like that jump up in the play and get the game-winner."
The Nailers made a final push, pulling goalie Scott Darling for the extra attacker, but the Gladiators dug deep and Louis Domingue made one of his best saves of the season.
Domingue, who was called up to AHL Portland after the win, threw up the glove to rob Chris Barton on a rocket from the top of the circle with less than a minute left in regulation.
It was an end that lived up to the beginning for thrills.
Things got off to a quick start with a goal by Gwinnett 49 seconds in and the first period finished with fireworks as tensions rose.
Defenseman Ryan Donald put a shot off the post and past Darling in the opening minute.
Wheeling answered with a rebound chipped in by Cam Fergus at 2:26 and grabbed a 2-1 lead on a shot from up top that dribbled over the line on the power play at 12:23.
Alex Belzile drew Gwinnett (32-19-2-1, 67 points) even with an impressive unassisted effort at 16:56. Playing 4-on-4, Belzile swept toward the top of the circle and ripped his shot in off the crossbar.
Wheeling (21-20-3-6, 51 points) regained its lead on another power-play goal, again with Haddad in the box, at 17:30.
"It started with me, being a little undisciplined," Haddad said. "You know the other team is going to try to get under my skin -- as we try to get under their top guys' skin. But I took a couple bad penalties early that hurt the team."
In what was already showing signs of a chippy game, an open-ice hit by Gwinnett defenseman Justin Weller with 90 seconds left in the first period fanned the flames. Weller put his shoulder into the chest of advancing forward Ben Farrer and Farrer went down in a heap. He lay motionless for several minutes and was eventually skated, assisted, off the ice.
With seven seconds left in the period, Christiaan Minella punched Donald in the crease after the whistle and got a double minor for roughing.
So the Gladiators started the second with nearly four minutes of power-play time. They failed to convert on that, in fact giving Fergus a one-on-one breakaway that Domingue foiled, and on another just a few minutes after it expired.
The Nailers, however, needed just seven seconds to score for the third time on the power play. Domingue couldn't control the rebound and Barton banged home his second goal of the game at 9:44.
Gwinnett trimmed that deficit back to 4-3 on a blast from the point by Weller. Casey Pierro-Zabotel was on top of the crease to deflect the shot past Darling at 13:01.
Wheeling pressed its advantage again 2:34 into the third period for a 5-3 lead, but Haddad answered 20 seconds later to keep it close. Haddad walked around a sprawling defender in the corner and buried a shot into the back of the net.
"During the second intermission, we told ourselves we were going to come out and prove to ourselves what we can do," Haddad said. "We knew we weren't out of the game. It was going to be a few shots or a few plays. We were fortunate enough to draw a couple of penalties and capitalize."
The Gladiators play Florida tonight and Sunday without either of its regular goalies. Domingue is on his way to join Mike Lee in Portland. Gwinnett has Nick Eno, who was a back-up Friday and was in training camp this fall, but another is needed immediately.