Photo: Amanda Hertel Gwinnett's Andy Brandt (#41) and Joey Haddad (#27) celebrate the game-winning goal against the South Carolina Stingrays on Saturday night.
DULUTH -- When it's a full house, when it's against South Carolina, the Gwinnett Gladiators have not disappointed.
The second biggest crowd this season was treated to a playoff-level performance and an incredible short-handed game-winning goal by Joey Haddad on Saturday at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
Haddad scored both goals in a 2-1 victory over the Stingrays and the Gladiators can finish no worse than fifth place in the conference. It was especially enjoyable after getting beat soundly in South Carolina 24 hours earlier.
"Even though we both have playoffs clinched, there's a pride factor," Haddad said. "We've butted heads all year. We're a division rival, the division's on the line. But the biggest thing was to prove it to ourselves. We had a tough night last night. I got benched halfway through the third period.
"So we definitely had something to prove coming into tonight and I felt like we, as a team, got it together and we proved that point."
Starting the third period on the penalty kill, Haddad made a brilliant shot to give Gwinnett the lead and bring the 8,646 on hand to their feet.
Haddad intercepted a pass just inside Gwinnett's blue line and took off the other way. Haddad outmuscled defenseman Scooter Vaughan draped on his back all the way down the ice and somehow lifted a backhanded shot as he careened toward the net. It found the small window in the near top corner, just inside the post, 31 seconds into the third.
"I didn't have a lot of options because I was short-sided on the net," Haddad said. "I was fighting a check off and when I got two hands back on the stick, there was only one place to go with it.
"It was definitely an exciting goal and I'm happy I got it. I was just thinking drive the net and worst case, (Vaughan) takes a penalty and we're even back up. But it's definitely first choice is to take that puck to the net and make that defender make a play on you."
The only crowd bigger than Saturday's this season was back on Feb. 2 -- a 3-0 win over South Carolina and it's league-leading goaltender Ryan Zapolski.
"We've got to get everybody out, everybody in the stands (for playoffs)," Haddad said. "It's a great time. The more fans that come out, the more fun it is for everybody.
"This time of year, it's exciting. We get 7-8,000 behind us every night, there's no telling what we can't do. Every person in the stands is like another person that's helping us win the game. It showed tonight. Everybody was really revved up. You're tired, bruised, but you hear that crowd and it makes it all goes away."
South Carolina scored first on a disputed goal 4:08 into the game. Gladiators' goalie Louis Domingue had the puck against the post and was waiting for a whistle. It never came and the Stingrays eventually poked the puck loose and cycled it back to the front of the net for Vaughan who snapped it home.
Domingue immediately protested, as did the rest of the team. But the complaints fell on deaf ears as referee Brett Sheva signaled a good goal.
"He's seeing it a little differently and obviously emotions are high in a game like that," Haddad said. "It was just one of those weird plays. He had a different view and the players almost assumed it was covered. It was out of sight for at least a couple seconds -- and there was no assurance from him that it was still loose. Which was our argument.
"But we looked past it. We came back, tied it up and won it in the third."
Gwinnett and Domingue held firm for the rest of a very physical period and evened the score 1-1 on a power play with less than three minutes left in the first.
From the blue line, Doug Jones flicked a pass to the high slot. Haddad collected it and quickly fired a low backhanded shot under Zapolski.
The second was without scoring, but not without drama. The playoff atmosphere intensified with good chances on both ends stymied by the goalies. Domingue had the save of the period, robbing Chris Langkow on a play at the far post with less than 15 seconds left in the period. Langkow was alone on the backdoor and Domingue threw out a big leg pad to deny him on a bang-bang play.
It kept the game tied 1-1 and set the table for Haddad's heroics.