Gladiators rally to beat Florida again in slugfest

DULUTH — The roars built. And built. And built.

The Gwinnett Gladiators thrilled the 8,093 on hand Saturday to another comeback victory over division rival Florida, once again recovering from an early deficit.

Gwinnett rallied from 2-0 and 3-2 down to beat the Everblades 5-4. The Gladiators’ third straight win was pure entertainment.

Especially the end of the second period.

His team down 3-2 and working on a power play in the last three minutes of the period, Gladiators new goalie Mark Guggenberger made the save of the game.

A.J. Jenks raced in alone on a short-handed rush that could have closed the door on Gwinnett.

Jenks feigned one way and the other. Guggenberger outlasted the shifty forward and stretched out to get his leg pad to the post just in time.

And the first big roar rose up from the faithful.

The power play turned into a 5-on-3 moments later and captain Joey Haddad backhanded a rebound over Knapp to tie the game at 19:08.

The next wave of noise hadn’t even faded when Brenden Walker pushed the Gladiators ahead.

Walker’s low slapshot from the top of the circle snuck inside the far post at 19:33.

And bedlam erupted.

Two fights and further shenanigans sent the crowd into a frenzy.

Five players were given 10-minute misconducts and the ice was littered with gloves and sticks.

“It was emotional,” Haddad said. “Some guys get ticked off, you have a little fight, a little whack or hack and that’s how you deal with it.

“As a team we stepped up. Three guys got into it out there after back-to-back goals to take the lead. That only happened because our team mentality was strong and we didn’t quit.”

The Gladiators weathered another push from Florida — and Guggenberger made another big short-handed save — before Bobby Hughes’ second goal of the night tightened the screws. Hughes deflected a shot from defenseman Eric Springer 7:25 into the third.

Gwinnett needed it, too.

The Everblades cut the lead to one with a goal from Mathieu Roy and more than seven minutes left to play.

But Guggenberger and the rest of the team didn’t break down the stretch.

“We had the hard-hat presentation in (the locker room) after the game,” Haddad said. “Bobby Hughes is another guy who game after game he’s there. He’s battling, he’s blocking shots, he’s scoring goals.

“It would have been so easy to give it back to Bobby, but you’ve got to recognize Guggenberger. He kept us in it.”

For the second straight night, Florida jumped out to a 2-0 lead. The Everblades, who dished out some big hits to start the game, were even faster on the draw a day after Gwinnett came from behind to win 4-2.

Jenks again got things rolling, corralling his own rebound and tucking it home on the backhand just 2:59 into the game.

Another rebound found the tape of Mike Cornell at the top of the circle. The defenseman hammered a shot off the crossbar and in at 6:34.

The Gladiators didn’t register their first shot on goal until 6:56 into the game, but stemmed the tide with a goal from Maxime Legault and a crucial penalty kill late in the first period.

Legault unloaded a sniper shot from the high slot to make it 2-1 at 14:23 and Gwinnett held Florida off the board during an extended 5-on-3 advantage. The Everblades set up the power play methodically, but were defused by a combination of smart defense, good goaltending and a little help from the post.

The Gladiators carried that into the second period and forged the first tie of the game, 2-2, on a goal by Hughes at 7:41. Legault was on the end boards and fired a centering pass to Hughes. The talented forward held the puck for a split second, waiting for a lane, and ripped the low shot past goalie Connor Knapp.

Florida quickly restored its lead, converting on a 3-on-1 rush as a Gwinnett power play expired.

But that just set the table for late-period surge from the Gladiators.

“We’re still struggling with some things,” Haddad said. “(Friday) night everyone was kind of joking around, comparing it to Ali’s rope-a-dope method. Lull them to sleep, tire them out and come on late in the round. But no, it’s not the plan.

“It’s 18 guys all together and we’ve got to get to a full 60 minutes. That includes starting the game the right way. But the thing I like, the thing I think helped us win the last two games is our team mentality. Early in the season, we’d get down two goals and the game would be over before it even started. We’re learning to play with adversity.”