Photo: Amanda Hertel Justin Bowers celebrates the first goal of the game Saturday against Greenville.
DULUTH -- After playing much of the game with a very narrow lead, the Gwinnett Gladiators exploded for two goals 31 seconds apart in the dying minutes of the third period and locked up their second straight South Division title Saturday.
Sacha Guimond and Casey Pierro-Zabotel, both recently returned from the AHL, scored two quick goals to close the door on Greenville in a 4-1 victory. Nearly 8,700 were on hand for the regular season finale at the Arena at Gwinnett Center and most stayed to the end to see the Gladiators earn their 43rd win of the season.
"Collectively, this was a great game for us and really sets the tone," said defenseman Tristin Llewellyn, who's first goal of the season was the game-winner. "You always want to go into the playoffs on a win.
"It's huge (to win the division), showing we won the hardest division in the league. Plus, it gives us home ice for as long as we can get it."
Gwinnett is the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference and will play division rival South Carolina in the first round of the playoffs. The best-of-seven series begins Friday at the arena. Game 2 is also in Gwinnett on Saturday.
"There will be no surprises in this series," Llewellyn said. "Both teams know each other pretty well by now. It'll be a hard-fought series because we know each other so well."
Justin Bowers sniped a goal less than five minutes into the game and then set up another to give the Gladiators a 2-0 lead after one period.
Bowers swept across the blue line, cut to the boards and ripped his shot into the far top corner, right past the outstretched glove of goalie Connor Knapp at 4:27.
Ten minutes later, Bowers was behind Knapp's net and sent a pass off the half wall to Llewellyn at the point. Llewellyn unloaded a slap shot that beat Knapp at 14:11.
Greenville, who has the last playoff seed in the Eastern Conference, but entered the game just seven points behind Gwinnett, was all over the Gladiators in the second. The Road Warriors cut the deficit to 2-1 on the lone goal of the period. A defensive giveaway deep in the Gwinnett zone led to a broken play in the slot and the puck got behind goalie Louis Domingue. Greenville's Brendan Connolly was there to poke it into the open net at 7:08.
But the Gladiators held that margin for the next 27 minutes until Guimond flung a shot from the point into the back of the net at 14:19 of the third.
Half a minute later, Pierro-Zabotel tracked down a puck in his skates and banging it home from the post to lock up the division championship.
Gwinnett won seven of its last eight games, including an impressive 2-1 victory over South Carolina less than two weeks ago.
"Every game is momentum, even if it was three weeks ago," Llewellyn said. "It's just keeping it simple the whole way through.
"The biggest thing is just getting guys to buy into their roles. I'm not a goal-scorer, and I'm fine with that. I've played on teams that have had those role-players and teams that haven't. I bet you can guess which one went farther."