Photo: Amanda Hertel
Gwinnett Gladiators captain Andy Brandt (41) scores the game-winning goal on Orlando netminder Patrick Killeen on Sunday at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
DULUTH — Captain Andy Brandt's game-winning goal, his second tally of the game, propelled the Gwinnett Gladiators to a 3-2 win over Orlando and into the playoffs Sunday.
A large holiday crowd, mostly dressed in green, was on hand for the win that helped lock up the Gladiators' postseason berth. Gwinnett's third straight victory over the Solar Bears, combined with a loss by Kalamazoo, ensured a playoff spot for the Gladiators.
Going to the tough area, Brandt banged home a rebound on top of the crease at 7:25 of the third period. The initial shot came from Yuri Bouharevich along the boards and pushed the Gladiators ahead for the third and final time in a tight game with the division's basement-dwelling Bears.
“This time of year, goals don't come from the perimeter,” Brandt said. “We've got to get to the hard areas, we've got to get to the cage.
“But if the puck doesn't get there, it doesn't go in. So (linemates Tristin) Llewellyn and Yuri did a great job forechecking and getting the puck. Yuri spun and shot it, I honestly just whacked at the puck and it trickled in for me.”
Division-leading Gwinnett has won four straight and has just four games remaining in the regular season. Three of those are at home.
“It feels good (to lock up the playoff berth),” Brandt said. “We have a proud group here and this time of year, it's all about momentum. We're starting to build, we're starting to carry some momentum in the right direction. Now it's our job to continue to do so.
“We've got a lot of work left and a long way to go.”
Brandt scored first, an important stat for the Gladiators (40-25-2-1, 83 points). Brandt stepped into a puck dished out of corner by Bouharevich and ripped a superb wrister into the top corner at 18:04. Brandt's shot from the face-off dot, his 11th goal of the season, gave Gwinnett the 1-0 lead. The Gladiators are 35-4-1-1 when scoring first.
“That was another great play,” Brandt said. “There's no frills with our line. We're a north-south, hardworking group. The puck went in the corner, we went east-west behind the net and the puck just trickled out. I just wanted to get it on net. Luckily it squeaked through.
“This is an important time of year and we've got to get shots. No matter how we get goals, as long as they go in the net for us.”
Orlando (26-33-3-3, 58 points) tied it quickly on an odd-man rush at 18:33. Nick McParland, just arrived after completing his collegiate career at Lake Superior State, fired a shot from the slot past Phoenix prospect Mark Visentin to even the score.
Visentin, picked in the second round of the 2010 draft, was sent to Gwinnett from the AHL this weekend on a rehab assignment and is headed back to Portland today.
Doug Jones broke up a the deadlock 3:25 into the third period, part of a wave of Gladiators rushing into Orlando's zone. Jones cut smoothly through the faceoff circle and rifled a low shot past the outstretched leg pad of goalie Patrick Killeen.
That lead was also short-lived thanks to McParland. At 5:40, Brett Hartung backhanded a centering pass to McParland, who was crashing the net. McParland reached out with his stick to knock it by Visentin.
“They played hard,” Brandt said of Orlando. “There't no quit in that group. Everybody played well. But we stayed consistent. The message was don't get frustrated, stick with the gameplan, and we did.”
Brandt came back with the game-winner just over two minutes later and the Gladiators finished 10-2-0-0 against the Solar Bears this season.