By Christine Troyke
Gwinnett Daily Post
DULUTH, Ga. — The Gwinnett Gladiators gave up the first goal of the series, but not the first game.
The Gladiators, after getting shut out at home by Mississippi in their final two meetings of the regular season, blasted the Sea Wolves 5-1 to open their best-of-five playoff series on Wednesday.
Brad Schell (pictured) scored twice and Gwinnett unloaded on Mississippi goalie Phil Sauve — a backup for the Colorado Avalanche last season — before a sparse crowd of 2,564 at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
“That’s the kind of game we needed right there,” Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle said. “That’s the message we needed to send right there.
“I put the emphasis on the first game right away. If you win the first one, then they know they have to win three out of four and two of those have got to be in our building.”
The teams travel to Mississippi for Friday’s Game 2, the only meeting in Biloxi due to scheduling conflicts there.
“I want to go in there and make it as difficult for them as we possibly can,” Pyle said. “They see how difficult it is, maybe we squeak it out there, come back with a 2-0 lead. But we know it’s going to be a war there. They’re not going to give that one up. That’s the one game they will not give up.”
The Sea Wolves took a 1-0 lead on exactly the kind of situation they’re so good at and Gwinnett is so apt to allow.
Mississippi capitalized on a 2-on-1 short-handed chance 7:13 into the game. Mike Garrow made a cross-crease pass to Austin Miller, who roofed a shot over Adam Berkhoel.
It wasn’t until the final minute of the period that the Gladiators got even.
Schell scored on precisely the same play that closed out the regular season with an overtime win against Augusta and boosted Gwinnett into the conference’s fourth seed. Coming down the right wing, almost drifting along the boards eying the goal and some help across the ice, Schell aimed a laser into the back of the net.
The Gladiators’ leading scorer against Mississippi this season, Schell tied the game with 33 seconds left in the period.
Mike Stathopoulos doubled that lead midway through the second period, converting on an sweet backhanded pass from Cam Brown behind the net.
Just moments after the Gladiators killed off 5-on-3 Mississippi power play, Stathopoulos was perfectly positioned on top of the crease and shoveled the go-ahead goal between Sauve’s legs at 10:15.
Wresting control from the Sea Wolves, Gwinnett continued to pound away and shot another dagger home, scoring again with 27 seconds left in the period.
This time it was some gorgeous tic-tac-toe passing on the power play that handcuffed Sauve.
Defenseman Joe Bourne earned the Gladiators a 3-1 lead at 19:33 off assists from Stathopoulos and Schell, who started the play from down in the corner.
“It was a beautiful, highlight reel goal and something we don’t always see,” Brown said. “ But it definitely put a nail in the coffin. You could kind of feel them deflate a little bit, knowing that going into the third period down 3-1.
“That’s a tough road ahead of them after that. It was definitely a big one. In the playoffs, every goal is a big one. Every one is one step closer to the goal (of a title).”
Brown took Gwinnett another step closer, crushing any glimmer of a Mississippi comeback 20 seconds into the third period. Forward Adam Smyth did a tremendous job springing Brown on the break, despite having to make the pass from his stomach. Schell turned it into a rout at 2:46 with his second of the night off an assist from Stathopoulos.
“We hadn’t scored a lot on Sauve, but what happens in the regular season really doesn’t mean a whole lot,” Pyle said. “I think the guys know what it’s all about now. They’re going to do whatever it takes.”