Maxime Legault (18) and Josh Currie (6) celebrate Legault’s first of two goals on Saturday night at the Arena at Gwinnett Center. (Photo: Amanda Hertel)
DULUTH — Three shots. Three goals.
Yet, somehow, the feisty Gwinnett Gladiators managed to extricate themselves from what could have been a devastating start and beat Greenville 6-4 on Saturday.
Leading the way was Mike Merrifield.
The second-year pro out of Michigan State scored tying and go-ahead goals on nearly identical breakaways as the Gladiators rallied from a 3-0 deficit.
The miraculous comeback against Greenville, one of the hottest teams in the league, came before 8,139 at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
“You’re home, you’re in front of your fans and you don’t want to get embarrassed,” Merrifield said. “We got off to that sluggish start, but (Maxime Legault) got us going with that tip-in goal. From there, we just kept hammering away — and got six unanswered.”
After tying the game late in the second period, Merrifield gave the Gladiators their first lead 1:58 into the third.
Greenville was set up in Gwinnett’s zone, but towering defenseman Samuel Noreau snapped his stick on an attempted point shot.
Taking advantage of the break, Will MacDonald raced to the loose puck and fired it to an already driving Merrifield in the neutral zone. Merrifield broke in ahead of everyone and snapped the puck under the crossbar.
“With a little bit of luck, the guy broke his stick,” Merrifield said. “Just another great pass from Mac and it was my job to finish. I was thinking about maybe doing the same move, but I decided to switch it up and it paid off.”
Once Merrifield gave the Gladiators a lead, they poured it on.
Dirk Southern, on the power play, and Legault scored goals 61 seconds apart to bury the Road Warriors.
“Greenville has a lot of firepower and any time you can get two quick goals like that, it really turns the momentum,” Merrifield said. “It’s a great win. Big crowd tonight and we didn’t want to disappoint. Any time you can come back from a three-goal deficit and win, it’s always special.”
Greenville, which only had three losses in its last 19 games, scored 57 seconds into the game and had a 3-0 lead by 2:35.
Andrew Rowe was left alone in the slot to convert on a feed from behind the net for his team-leading 27th goal of the season and the Road Warriors were off and rolling.
Andrew Yogan sniped the short-side top corner at 1:19 and Marc-Olivier Vallerand, Greenville’s second-best scorer, made a strong move to the net for the 3-0 lead barely a minute later.
The contingent of Road Warrior fans who made the trip were the only ones cheering in a full house — at least for another minute when the Gladiators began their comeback.
Legault swept to the net front just as defenseman Jonathan Narbonne released a heavy slap shot from the point. Legault tipped the puck past goalie Jeff Malcolm and stemmed the tide at 3:54.
The 3-1 score held through intermission — and Gwinnett burst out of the gates in the second.
“We came back in the locker room and just said we had to get them back one at a time,” Merrifield said. “It was a collective, ‘We’re better than that’ talk and the boys just came together and got the job done.”
Narbonne, scoring only his second goal of the season, cut the gap to 3-2 just 4:00 into the period. The puck banked off the half wall to an advancing Narbonne. The rookie leaned into a big shot that ripped past Malcolm’s near shoulder.
The Gladiators kept the pressure on and finally tied it with less than three minutes left in the second period.
Defenseman Eric Springer sprung Merrifield on a breakaway down the middle. Merrifield burst over the blue line, two steps ahead of the closing defense. Dancing in, changing backhand to forehand and back again, Merrifield slid the puck under Malcolm at 17:09. Merrifield, acquired in a trade with Florida on March 12, pumped both arms up, exhorting the already revelrous crowd to greater levels of adulation.
Mark Guggenberger, after the difficult start, made two of his best saves in the final minute of the second period to keep the game tied 3-3 and set the table for the third-period blitzkrieg.
“As a team we just need to get better at coming out and playing the way we did in the second and third right from the get-go,” Merrifield said. “But the boys stuck together.”