By Christine Troyke
Gwinnett Daily Post
DULUTH, Ga. – The first 60 minutes of Game 3 were a virtual replay of Game 2.
Goalie Josh Johnson again sparkled and the Gwinnett Gladiators had a lead in the third period.
Florida again tied the game with a last-minute goal and forced overtime.
Then the plot thickened and deviated.
Johnson had to leave the game due to dehydration 6:45 into the extra session and it was the Gladiators getting the winner this time.
The Gladiators’ 3-2 victory Thursday cut Florida’s best-of-seven playoff series lead to 2-1. Game 4 is Friday at the Gwinnett Arena.
“The puck came up so high, I was just hoping it would settle down,” Zanoski said. “I got a breakaway on them in Florida and shot low blocker. So I didn’t want to do that again. You don’t really think. You just do whatever you get a chance to do and it worked out.”
Zanoski said Johnson leaving could have been a tense situation, but it motivated the team.
“It gave us even more jump,” Zanoski said. “It gives us the jump to do it for him.”
Johnson sparkled in regulation, but concern was raised when he was last out of the locker room for overtime. He got to the net just in time, but made it through less than seven minutes.
“I give him credit for saying that he couldn’t (stay in the game),” Gwinnett head coach Jeff Pyle said. “To come out when he did, and then Joe (Fallon) had to make a few huge saves for us.”
Fallon, a Chicago Blackhawks’ prospect, held the fort until Zanoski could make good on his glorious scoring chance. Zanoski was sprung on a chip out of the zone by defenseman Brennan Turner.
“(I’m) absolutely elated,” Turner said. “There’s nothing like an overtime win in playoffs. It brings life back to the series for us. It was a good character win.
“We dug ourselves a hole, let them back into the game, but it’s a new series now.”
The vast majority of the quality scoring chances in the first period went to Florida. But the Gladiators took a 1-0 lead into intermission thanks to Johnson’s exceptional goaltending and a flurry of rebounds that finally defeated Leggio.
Johnson was stellar from the first minute and four of his saves in the first period were nothing short of amazing.
During Gwinnett’s first power play, about 10 minutes into the game, Ross Carlson charged in on a short-handed breakaway. Johnson gloved that aside.
With six minutes left in the period, Andrew Sweetland undressed the defense and stick-handled beautifully in on Johnson. But the netminder made a huge goal-line stand, snagging the puck as he fell backward.
Moments later, Mark Lee had another short-handed chance and Johnson flashed the glove again.
“Johnny played his (butt) off,” Pyle said.
The biggest denial came late. Yannick Tifu was robbed by Johnson as the clock rolled under three minutes. Tifu, just assigned to the Everblades from AHL Albany on Monday, got a perfect centering pass as he crashed the net. Johnson went post-to-post in a blink to make the save and Gwinnett quickly rushed the other way with the rescued puck.
That chance was capped by Dirk Southern punching a rebound past Leggio for a 1-0 lead that brought the fans to their feet at 17:44.
It was more of the same in the second period – nothing as flashy, but the score remained unchanged courtesy of the goalies at both ends of the ice. Johnson continued to do a yeoman’s job as the Everblades held a 29-17 shot advantage after 40 minutes.
Despite the shot totals, Gwinnett actually had better pressure and more scoring opportunities in the second. The Gladiators’ passing was greatly improved and though they gave Florida three power-play chances, they killed all three off.
For the second straight game, Gwinnett entered the final period with a lead. In the regular season that virtually guaranteed a win. The Gladiators were 22-0-1 in that situation before the playoffs.
For the second straight game, Gwinnett couldn’t hold on to the final horn.
Last Saturday, Florida overcame a 2-0 deficit with power-play goals in the third to force overtime.
Johnson was in goal for that game as well and again was bitten by a Gwinnett penalty.
Florida tied Thursday’s game on the power play at 2:53 of the third. Lee’s booming blast from the blue line was the shot that finally foiled Johnson. The head-on slapper zipped under Johnson, who tipped his head back in a gesture that illustrated a myriad of emotions.
“Again, we shot ourselves in the foot a couple times with situations you can’t really put yourself into,” Pyle said. “But I give these guys credit, it’s never been their work ethic or their heart.”
Andy Brandt answered that tying goal with his first of the playoffs just a few minutes later to restore Gwinnett’s lead.
A shot by Travis Fuller skittered sideways and sat in the blue paint. Brandt extended his arm and stick to the maximum to poked the puck home. He punched both arms into the air and leapt into the glass.
The 2-1 lead lasted until the final minute.
“We started taking it to them late in the third,” Pyle said. “We had a couple really good chances when it was 2-1 to go up 3-1. Near misses then we turn it over in the last minute and get scored on.”
With Leggio pulled for the extra attacker, Florida forced overtime once again. The Everblades rushed to mob Peter Metcalf who beat Johnson at 19:12.
“Obviously it’s disappointing because that happens with 48 seconds to go,” Zanoski said. “It’s one of those things that’s in your head like, oh, here we go again.
“But we came in the (locker) room and it was OK. You can’t let it bother you. We came into the room and regrouped. We said we’ve got to do this and we’re going to do it. That’s the attitude we have to have.”