Gwinnett Gladiators Marshall Everson (3) celebrates the first goal of the game on Orlando netminder Christopher Gibson on Saturday at the Arena at Gwinnett Center. (Photo: Amanda Hertel)
DULUTH — The Gwinnett Gladiators kept the biggest crowd of the season entertained from start to finish, edging in front of Orlando three times on Saturday.
The third one stood up. And so did more than 8,600 for rookie Marshall Everson’s game-winning goal.
On the power play, Everson swept from down low to the middle of the faceoff circle, turned, and drilled a shot past Solar Bears goalie Christopher Gibson just 1:17 into the third period.
The Gladiators, who also led 1-0 and 2-1, held firm for the rest of regulation and beat Orlando 3-2. It was the second straight win for Gwinnett at home over the Solar Bears, who were wildly outshot (43-20) by the Gladiators.
“It shows the character of every guy there in the room,” Everson said. “It’s obvious that we’ve gone through tough stretches, but at this point in the season, to still be able to come back when parts of the game aren’t going our way is impressive. It’s what makes it fun to play with these guys.”
Dirk Southern, often more of a playmaker than a sniper, recognized a golden opportunity when his teammates set him up for the first lead.
Pushing hard for the opening goal with repeated surges against the Solar Bears, a good outlet pass by defenseman Justin Weller paid off. Weller got it to Maxime Legault in the neutral zone and Legault snapped it crisply to Southern charging down the middle of the ice. Southern raced in ahead of everyone and ripped the puck into the back of the net to trigger an avalanche of stuffed toys.
All of the animals donated for the annual Teddy Bear Toss — which in 10 years has collected more than 50,000 toys — go to area children in need.
“I’d be lying if said it wasn’t in the back of everyone’s mind (that the fans were waiting on the first goal),” Everson said with a smile. “But we were playing a team that had three games in three nights on the road. For us to come out hard and strong right away was to our benefit.
“And I thought we played a really strong first period. It showed from the drop of the puck and that just happens to turn into a goal. But our mindset going in was jump on them and try to make it as hard as possible a night from the get-go.”
After the cleanup, Orlando came back with a breakaway of it’s own. But recently assigned goaltender Scott Stajcer stonewalled Jacob Cepis with a stretched-out leg pad and the Gladiators kept their 1-0 lead through intermission.
Orlando’s C.J. Severyn erased that on the power play 3:46 into the second and then negated a 2-1 Gwinnett lead late in the period.
After Severyn backhanded a rebound under Stajcer during a scrum on top of the crease, the Gladiators executed another sharp passing play to regain the lead. Bobby Hughes batted down a puck in the neutral zone and corralled it for a breakaway down the boards. Hughes feathered a sweet sauce pass to the slot as Legault charged to the net. Legault went to the backhand and tipped the feed home at 10:09.
It snapped a seven-game goalless drought for Legault and he celebrated accordingly.
“It was huge,” Everson said. “He’s a guy who’s been playing well, even when he’s not getting on the score sheet. But it was great to see him get that one tonight and hopefully it will open the floodgates for him. I’ve got a feeling it will. Sometimes you just need something like that to get the monkey off your back.”
Severyn evened the score again at 17:24, just as a penalty to the Solar Bears expired. Severyn was unguarded in the slot and got a pass from behind the net to tie it 2-2. But Gwinnett pushed ahead one last time on Everson’s 10th goal of the season.
“It’s a play we work on in practice and Bobby takes some space away to give me the open outside,” Everson said. “I have a lot of different options from there. The way they were sitting back and the way Max was screening the goalie, I figured the shot was the best play. I don’t think the goalie ever saw it come off my stick. Max took his eyes away and I hit the net on the far side.”
The Gladiators get a small window to enjoy the win with their next game not until Thursday — in Orlando.
“It’s great,” Everson said. “This league, there’s a lot of games in a short period of time. So it’s nice to have a night to celebrate with the guys and look back at what we did this week. Then we get right back into it.”