By Christine Troyke
Gwinnett Daily Post
DULUTH, Ga. – The Gwinnett Gladiators gave Alaska a taste of what they were capable of in Game 4, but had to swallow a bitter pill 24 hours later as the Aces won the Kelly Cup on Thursday.
One night after hammering Alaska to stave off elimination, the Gladiators ran out of gas in Game 5 of the ECHL championship series, losing 4-3 at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
The Aces mobbed winning goalie Matt Underhill as time expired, littering one end of the ice with a yard sale of equipment and joyful shouts.
At the other end of the ice, the Gladiators stood or knelt, silent sentinels absorbing the end of their season.
“A couple days from now, it’s going to set in, what a great opportunity we had here,” ECHL MVP Jeff Campbell said as his teammates sat in their locker room stalls, swiping at tear-reddened eyes. “This group of guys is probably the most talented team I’ve ever been on. We played great all year and we worked hard through the playoffs, including the finals.
“It’s really disappointing that we got this close and we didn’t win. But I’m really proud of all my teammates and overall it was a really great season.”
The Kelly Cup was presented to the champions while Gwinnett head coach Jeff Pyle walked through his line of troops, patting backs. It was small consolation and the pain of coming so close will haunt the Gladiators for some time.
Alaska ceded just one game to the Gladiators in the best-of-seven finals and became just the second team in league history to win both the regular and postseason titles.
The Aces, who came from behind in Game 5 to end Gwinnett’s dream season, join South Carolina as the only teams to raise the Brabham and Kelly Cups in the same season. They completed the feat on the road and won by one goal for the fourth time.
“We had the opportunities, we just didn’t get it done,” Pyle said. “The same type of mistakes we made all year kind of burned us tonight.
“But I have no regrets. Bottom line, these guys played hard. We gave it everything we had. Alaska deserved it. They just outplayed us.”
Gwinnett, the ECHL’s top scoring team all year, had the whole third period to try and rally from the 4-3 deficit. But their high-octane offense perhaps ran too rich the night before in a 6-1 win and there just wasn’t another goal to be had in the final 20 minutes.
“It was just a combination of things, it wasn’t one thing, it was everything during the whole series,” Campbell said. “We didn’t get the job done in every situation. We were in every game and the guys played hard. But in the end, we just didn’t get the job done.
“They played really well defensively in the third and we had some opportunities and we didn’t capitalize. That was the way it went all series for us.”
Special teams defined the first period as the Gladiators scored three times on the power play and forced Alaska to fight back from a two-goal deficit.
The Gladiators gained a 3-1 lead, but gave up a short-handed tally and ended up tied 3-3 after 20 minutes.
Guillaume Desbiens, who had two goals in Game 4, was left alone between the faceoff circles and buried a shot 2:51 into the game to get Gwinnett off on the right foot. Desbiens converted on a crisp tape-to-tape centering pass from Brad Schell for his 10 th goal of the playoffs.
The Aces tied it with a short-handed shot, scored led a 3-on-1 rush and beat Adam Berkhoel with a high wrister on the glove side at 12:07.
The Gladiators answered less than a minute later, regaining the lead on the same power play they lost it on. Defenseman Jon Awe gloved down an attempted clear and in one smooth motion wound up for a booming slap shot that rang all the way around the inside of the net at 12:58.
A third power-play tally, shoveled home by a reaching Derek Nesbitt on the backdoor, gave Gwinnett a 3-1 lead. Schell picked up another assist by taking the initial shot that skittered through the crease to Nesbitt at 16:57.
Alaska scored 37 seconds later on a delayed penalty and tied it with 20 seconds left in the period. The last came on a gross defensive lapse as the Gladiators were caught standing around.
“You give them the short-handed one, which shouldn’t happen at that point, but we’re up 3-1,” Pyle said. “Then your energy is taken away by two goals where we’re back and we should have guys but we don’t.
“Right there you played a great first period and you’re tied 3-3.”
The energy level remained on the low side in the second period and a Gwinnett power-play unit that scored on three of its first five chances, went flat in the middle 20 minutes.
The Gladiators had 12 minutes to play with the man advantage, but it was Alaska scoring the only goal of the period – and on the power play.
The Aces took a 4-3 lead on a simple wrister from Scott that beat Berkhoel five-hole at 11:43. It was Scott’s second goal of the game and 11 the in the 2006 postseason.
“We got a little lackadaisical and sloppy,” Pyle said. “At times we got outworked. Is it tired? Is it did we want it bad enough? I don’t know. Guys kind of clinch up sometimes when the game is tight. That’s what we did.
“I knew coming in 3-0, the chances were slim. Under those circumstances, you’ve got to play perfect hockey. If you don’t, you open yourself up to a counterpunch and that’s just what they did. It’s what they did best.”