Gwinnett Gladiators netminder Paul Karpowich makes one of his 36 saves during Gwinnett’s 8-1 victory over the Florida Everblades on Saturday at the Arena at Gwinnett Center (Photo: Amanda Hertel)
DULUTH — Tired, playing short-handed on defense, the Gwinnett Gladiators decimated Florida in a 8-1 rout Saturday.
One of the biggest home crowds of the season was on hand for an offensive outburst as the Gladiators won for the fifth time in seven games.
Finally finding their stride after a difficult start to the season, Gwinnett beat the two best teams in the division on back to back nights.
The Gladiators’ bus arrived home after rolling past league-leading South Carolina at 3:30 a.m. Saturday — and the team had enough gas in the tank to bury the Everblades in front of 6,623 at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
Playing their third game in as many days, the Gladiators scored goals 8 seconds apart in the first and broke the game wide open with two more quick ones in the second.
Gwinnett set a season high for goals, all against a former first-round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning and by seven different players.
“It was nice,” forward Dirk Southern, who had a goal and three assists, said with a chuckle. “It’s been a long time coming for sure.”
Such an understatement.
The Gladiators suffered through a dismal start and have had a hard time stringing together wins. Until now, it seems.
“I guess there are no excuses now, right?” Southern said. “I think we’ve shown in spurts if we get up the ice and we forecheck and play with some energy, we can be dangerous offensively.
“You’ve got to give a lot of credit to our guys — especially playing so many games in so many nights — coming out with energy. And give credit to the fans for giving us a boost.”
Fresh off a 4-0 thumping of South Carolina, the Gladiators powered their way to a 3-0 lead in a thrilling first 10 minutes of Saturday’s game and never looked back.
“Sometimes when you’re tired, you just seem to be in the right place at the right time,” Southern said. “So you don’t overthink things.”
Defenseman Daniel Spivak stole a puck just inside his own blue line and fed it quickly to Brett Lyon on the boards. Lyon drove to the net and snapped off a shot. Playing his first ECHL game of the season, Florida goalie Riku Helenius made the save, but Brendan Walker pounced on the long rebound and hammered it into the back of the net at 5:54 of the first.
“You’ve got to give a lot of credit to those guys (on defense),” Southern said. “They played well tonight. They moved the pucks fast and used their partners. Sometimes when you have less guys, you can get into the game a little more. But hat’s off to them.”
With the offense sparked, Gwinnett’s Paul Karpowich more than held up his end of the bargain between the pipes.
He preserved the 1-0 lead with an incredible side-to-side save on Parker Stanfield, who was denied at the far post, and continued to impress even after the Gladiators smashed two quick goals by Helenius.
Lyon earned his second assist of the game when he made another strong move to the net. Both defenders collapsed on Lyon in the slot and poked the puck free. But Josh Currie was trailing and scooped it up. The rookie made no mistake, ripping his shot clean past Helenius to give Gwinnett a 2-0 lead at 9:22.
Currie’s sixth goal of the season hadn’t even been announced to the crowd when Southern lit the lamp eight seconds later.
“We were lucky to catch them sleeping a little bit after the second goal,” Southern said.
But the big finish was left to Karpowich, who again stonewalled Stanfield on a point-blank rebound try with barely more than a minute remaining in the first period.
“Karps played fantastic tonight,” Southern said. “He made some really acrobatic saves when we needed him to. And I think as a team we’re starting to play a little bit better defense in terms of collapsing and not giving teams such easy looks. But a lot of credit has to go to our goaltending tonight.”
Florida solved Karpowich 2:24 into the second period for its one and only goal of the night. Will MacDonald roofed a rebound to close the gap to 3-1. And Gwinnett answered. Resoundingly.
The Gladiators had a goal waved off, but scored on the next rush into the zone when Evan Bloodoff sent a feed from the corner toward the goal mouth. Joey Haddad was crashing the net and tipped it in at 6:57.
Kurtis Bartliff teed up a blast from the top of the circle 44 seconds later and all of a sudden it was a 5-1 lead.
Gwinnett added another in the second period with Maxime Legault scoring his eighth goal of the game at 15:53 against Helenius, who was just assigned from AHL Syracuse on Dec. 31.
Bloodoff and Currie capped the blitzkrieg with power-play goals at 15:32 and 19:29 of the third.