By Christine Troyke
Gwinnett Daily Post
DULUTH, Ga. – The shot was unbelievable in it’s execution and timing.
Yannick Tifu was on his stomach when the puck left his extended stick. The puck cut across the body of Gwinnett goalie Josh Johnson, who was square to Tifu and hugged tight to the near post. The shot rose. And rose, finally finding a home in the far top corner with 24 seconds left in regulation.
Tifu’s shot eliminated the Gladiators from the Kelly Cup Playoffs Sunday.
Johnson, who had been spectacular in the game and series, stayed on both knees, looking down at the ice for long moments afterward.
The Everblades, who had the league’s best record in the regular season, took Game 5 at the Arena at Gwinnett Center 2-1 and the series 4-1.
“Bottom line, we didn’t shoot the puck enough so you get what you deserve,” Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle said. “The guys were playing hard. But if you can’t suck it up at this time of the year, this is what happens – you’re out early.
“We gave them a battle I know they didn’t expect. We could have won all five of those games.”
Tifu said as much himself as the Everblades packed up and prepared for the next round where they’ll face South Carolina. The Stingrays finished second in the division and ousted Charlotte on Sunday night.
“(The Gladiators) didn’t play like a team that finished fourth,” Tifu said. “They played like a top team. People always say it’s so easy to play against the first team because you’re trying to do your best and no matter what happens you’re happy.
“But I think Gwinnett, that’s not in their mentality that no matter what they’re going to be happy. They played really good the whole series. It could have been either way.”
The Gladiators had leads in four of the five games, including Sunday’s, and were tied with Florida going into the third period of Game 4.
“They battled,” said Tifu, who wasn’t assigned to the team until Game 3 but followed the first two while with AHL Albany. “They don’t deserve that 4-1. It should have been a better result for them.
“I’m not going to lie, we’re happy. We’re happy we got the win, but at the same time we’ve got to give credit to Gwinnett and the coach who did an unbelievable job to prepare their team.”
The Gladiators scored first right after killing off a huge 5-on-3 power play Sunday. As the man advantage was winding down, a feed up to the point sailed right past Peter Metcalf and the puck bounced around in the neutral zone.
Jordan Fox latched onto it and zipped down the right wing. He stick-handled around the defender and took a shot. The puck pin-balled off goalie David Leggio‘s shoulder and landed tantalizing inches from goal line.
Defenseman Jean-Claude Sawyer reached out to poke it home even as Leggio whirled to try and cover.
The goal at 2:43 of the second period sparked the Everblades and Johnson was under fire frequently over the next few minutes. He didn’t let anything get by him, but at 11:01, Fox was called for holding.
“Our penalties were ridiculous,” Pyle said. “Embarrassingly ridiculous. The one by Foxy was as selfish a penalty as it gets. We were all over them at that point, we score, we have a couple chances and then he takes a selfish penalty like that. To me, that’s so unacceptable.”
Eighteen seconds later, Ross Carlson tied the game for the Blades with his fourth goal of the series.
Gwinnett had a potential goal waived off with 14 minutes left in regulation. A shot by Fox hit Leggio and looped toward the net. It landed right near the goal line and was moving still when Leggio slapped his glove over it.
With moments like that, no wonder Pyle was unhappy with the lack of shots taken by his team in the game (just 22) and the series.
“I’ve been saying that all series, we don’t shoot the puck enough,” Pyle said. “Our power play, again, was horrible. The leadership on the power play was invisible at times. We really didn’t deserve the bounces. We worked hard, we just didn’t have enough guys going in the right direction.
“We didn’t have the depth they did. We didn’t have the finish they did.”