By Christine Troyke
Special to The News-Press
DULUTH, Ga. – The Gwinnett Gladiators battled back from a two-goal deficit in the second period, but gave the Florida Everblades one too many chances in the third.
The Everblades scored the game-winner on the power play and pushed the Gladiators to the brink of elimination with a 4-2 victory Friday at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
Playing with fire, the Gladiators dodged a number of close calls in the first half of the third period. Goaltender Joe Fallon and some great defensive plays were the only reason it remained a tie game.
But a hooking penalty at 11:59 gave Florida a golden chance to regain the lead it had let slip away. The always opportunistic Everblades were swarming around Gwinnett’s goal and Ross Carlson (pictured) was on the doorstep to bang the puck home at 13:05.
Carlson, who added an empty-netter with two seconds left to seal the deal, said the team stayed calm during the second intermission, despite Gwinnett’s comeback.
“(We said,) ‘Don’t panic boys, do your job, don’t get out of position, work hard and smart,’ ” Carlson said. “We did that and it paid off in the long run.”
The Gladiators, who trail 3-1, must win Sunday’s Game 5 at home to stay alive in the best-of-7 first-round ECHL playoff series.
Carlson called the series, which includes two overtime games, an “absolute grind” and expects no less Sunday.
“They’re going to come out firing because it’s their season on the line,” he said. “We have to weather the storm and I think that with this veteran group, we know that.”
Florida scored the first two goals of Friday’s game by capitalizing on defensive gaffe and a power play.
Steve McJannet knifed down the middle of the ice into Gwinnett’s zone, between two defenders who failed to pick him up. McJannet rifled a past Fallon just 3:23 into the game.
Florida doubled its lead late in the period when Mark Lee‘s shot from the blue line found its way through traffic. Lee’s third goal of the series came on the power play at 17:43.
It was looking like the Everblades would remain in control of the game as the second period progressed.
In a blink though, the Gladiators were suddenly right back in it.
Gwinnett got two goals 41 seconds apart to tie the game less than halfway through the second.
Dan Sullivan scored a huge power-play goal at 8:36 to spark a furious series of events.
Sullivan was parked at the bottom of the face-off circle and immediately pulled the trigger on a feed from Tom Zanoski in the corner. Sullivan, who scored just six goals in the regular season, celebrated wildly after ripping the lightning shot past goalie David Leggio. His reaction was matched by the fans, many of whom could be heard shouting, “Sully!”
The game opened up from there and Fallon had to made two scrambling saves right off the bat. He kept Florida from scoring a momentum-killing answer and the Gladiators ran with it – right down to the other end of the ice.
Pat Bateman showed off his skating skills and hands to score the game-tying goal at 9:17. Bateman got loose cutting into the Florida zone, walked around a fallen defender and roofed a backhanded shot.
It happened so fast that Sullivan’s goal was still being announced and Bateman’s tally sent the faithful into even louder spasms of joy.
“They’re a tough team,” Carlson said. “We’ve always had trouble with them and we’ve known that coming into it.”