By Christine Troyke
Gwinnett Daily Post
DULUTH, Ga. – The minutes ticked slowly and quietly by.
Players sat by their lockers with sweat-soaked equipment still half on and that hollow end-of-a-season look on their faces.
Ten minutes ago, the Gwinnett Gladiators were locked in a 1-1 tie with the top-ranked Florida Everblades. Ten minutes ago, their season still had life.
Then Yannick Tifu made an incredible shot from his stomach. Tifu scored with 24 seconds left in regulation, putting a puck into the far top corner of the net. With the 2-1 win in Game 5 on Sunday, Florida took its first-round series against Gwinnett 4-1.
The minutes ticked slowly and quietly by.
Eventually, the low sounds of a country music song drifted out of the dressing room. Then, 45 minutes after the horn sounded on the season, a few laughs could be heard. Someone turned the music up above somber levels and though it was John Mayer’s “Say,” the decibels signaled a beginning acceptance.
But goaltender Josh Johnson, already shed of his gear and dressed in his suit, struggled to come up with any one reason the season was over.
“That’s a tough question,” said Johnson, who was simply spectacular throughout the series. “I can’t really think of one thing. A couple things. There’s always something you can do different, but I can’t honestly think of any one thing.
“We just worked hard and it came out in their favor. They’re a talented team.”
Like the final game, the whole series was a battle.
The Gladiators – who fought to the last day of the regular season to secure the division’s fourth and final playoff spot – led in four of the five games and were tied going into the third of the other. Two of the games went to overtime and Sunday’s looked to be headed there before Tifu’s last-second goal.
“Both teams played their hearts out,” Johnson said. “We came to work every night. It’s real easy for a team to roll over when they’re down in a series and we didn’t.
“The guys worked for the guy sitting next to them and just battled until the buzzer.”
The Gladiators had chances on Sunday. But the power play was anemic, the shots were few and the penalties were, to quote head coach Jeff Pyle, “embarrassingly ridiculous.”
So Tifu’s shot will be remembered for its timing and its finality. But that’s not where the game, or the series, were really lost.
“Same old, same old,” Pyle said after Game 5. “You’ve got to have guys understand the team concept of not being selfish, not taking the penalties we did. That’s where it kills you.
“But bottom line, I know we gave them a fight they didn’t expect.”