By Christine Troyke
Gwinnett Daily Post
DULUTH — This year the Gwinnett Gladiators went for the jugular.
After allowing Mississippi to force a deciding Game 5 in this same playoff round last season, Gwinnett polished off the Sea Wolves at the first opportunity. The Gladiators eliminated Mississippi 3-1 in Game 4 of the American Conference quarterfinals Monday before 2,882 at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
The Sea Wolves made it interesting, getting it to 2-1 in the second period, but Adam Smyth (pictured) drove home the killing blow midway through the third period.
With time running out on the power play, Brad Schell’s pass from the boards found Smyth out front. Smyth rifled a shot past Mississippi goalie Phil Sauve at 10:05 and the reaction was pure joy. The bruising forward had his second goal in as many games and jumped into the air with arms pinwheeling before tackling Schell.
“Guys were just working hard,” said Smyth, who like the rest of the team was relatively subdued in the locker room after the win. “We knew we needed one bad and it was a nice passing play.
“I was where I was supposed to be. We work on that stuff all the time and I just one-timed it home. It was a big goal.”
The celebration hit full stride 10 minutes later. Fans chanted, “Warm up the bus,” as time ran out on the Sea Wolves’ season and the Gladiators gathered around goalie Adam Berkhoel, who surrendered just one goal in each of his three wins.
“(Berkhoel) was phenomenal,” Gwinnett head coach Jeff Pyle said. “We played well in front of him and he made the saves he needed to make.
“I told the guys, we don’t want to get to Game 5 because then it’s a bad break, then it’s a bad call. We learned last year. We played hard and everyone did their job. The character showed.”
Mike Stathopoulos and Smyth picked up where they left off in Game 3. The two rookies, good for three goals in Saturday’s 8-1 shellacking, teamed up to give Gwinnett a 1-0 lead at 8:29 of the first period.
Smyth intercepted an outlet pass and chopped a shot on goal from low in the right faceoff circle. Stathopoulos was out front and tipped the puck past Sauve for his fourth goal of the postseason.
Chris Durno got his third tally of the playoffs less than two minutes later, and got it easily. Left all alone in the slot, Durno had an open net when Rick Emmett’s centering feed was on the mark at 10:19. Kris Goodjohn assisted on the 2-0 tally, coming in ahead of the rush and dishing to Emmett on the wing.
Mississippi cut the deficit in half, scoring 1:35 into the second period. But the Gladiators held onto the 2-1 margin despite having to kill off three power plays and getting outshot 14-5 in the period.
“Naturally, they’re down 2-0 and honestly I think we all kind of thought, ‘Oh, they’re going to quit,’” Pyle said. “Then they got that one and it was kind of a fluke. But their bench came up like they just won the Cup.
“I was just praying to God we could get out of that period up 2-1.”
That plea was answered and then another as Smyth scored.
“We needed that one,” Pyle said. “We needed someone to step up and you could just see it on our bench, guys were energized. All of a sudden the game was ours.”
Smyth’s dagger restored the two-goal advantage and propelled Gwinnett into the second round of the playoffs. The Gladiators, who earned a day off today, get to watch and wait as the other conference series continue.
“I know the Game 5 would have been at home, but it’s great to not have that pressure,” Smyth said. “It’s a big win for us. We’ll enjoy it tonight, but we know we’ve got to keep going, on to bigger and better things.”