DULUTH, GA - On the biggest night of the season to date, the Gladiators delivered a spectacular performance in front of a season-high crowd of 9,971. Forward Nick Bligh skated circles around the bewildered Icemen with four first-period goals en route to a 6-3 win.
With the large crowd still settling into their seats, Bligh, a hero just one night earlier, retained that crown just 1:24 into the contest. Derek Nesbitt, playing in his franchise-leading 358th game, chased a puck into the far corner. He dished it behind to a trailing Joe Widmar near the front of the net. Jacksonville defenders scrambled to stifle the Northbrook, IL native, but a rebound found Bligh with Jacksonville’s goaltender Tanner Jaillet leaning the wrong way. The second chance found the back of the net and gave the Gladiators an early lead, which triggered a shower of euphoria and fluffy bears.
Bligh, the Milton, MA native, stayed red hot for Atlanta on the first penalty kill of the night. Nolan LaPorte stepped in front of an Icemen pass in his defensive zone. He collected himself and found Bligh streaking through the defense at center ice. For the second time on the night, Bligh found Jaillet leaning the wrong way and buried the short-handed chance to double Atlanta’s lead.
The Gladiators two-goal lead did not last long as Jacksonville’s Cody Fowlie capitalized on some Icemen offensive momentum. He roofed a wrist shot above Sean Bonar to get the visitors on the board.
At 2-1, it seemed every moment of the game would be a back-and-forth bout. Cue more Bligh. Nesbitt gathered a puck at the blue line before sliding a pass to defensemen Joel Messner. The Lorette, MB native sent a shot on Jaillet in goal and the rebound found none other than Bligh. His rebound chance found the back of the net to give Atlanta a 3-1 lead and the former Worcester Railer a hat trick in the first period.
Nesbitt joined the party with 3:35 to play in the opening frame. Widmar battled for a puck on the near-side half boards and sent a bouncing biscuit to defenseman Kyle Chatham at the blue line. His quick pass to the slot was redirected by the most senior Gladiator to the back of the net.
As if enough had not happened in the opening period, Bligh added to his incredible 24-hour stretch. With 1:56 to play in the lengthy first period, Widmar won an offensive zone face-off to Bligh on the half boards. His one-timer bested Jaillet yet again and gave the Gladiators a four-goal cushion going to the locker room.
Jacksonville did not take the first period walloping lying down, as they were buzzing to open the middle frame. It was eventually Cam Maclise, by way of Wacey Rabbitt and Christophe Lalancette, that finally stopped the bleeding for Jacksonville to bring the score to 5-2 with 17:57 to play in the second period.
Despite the Icemen owning a decisive 23-8 shots advantage in the second period, the Gladiators were able to equal Jacksonville’s scoring in the period. Mikhail Berdin, in goal for the besieged Jaillet, misplayed a puck behind the net. Luke Stork gathered the puck and found the new Gladiator iron man Nesbitt slicing to the crease. He netted his second of the night to regain Atlanta’s four-goal lead with 3:13 to play in the middle frame.
Both teams pressed in the final period, but it was Jacksonville’s Jacob Cederholm gathering another tally for the visitors with 6:24 to play in the contest. The result was never in doubt as the Gladiators brought home their second win in as many nights.
Multiple records were broken on this historic night at Infinite Energy Arena. Nesbitt’s 358th game lifted him to the lead in games played for the Gladiators. Bligh’s outstanding offensive output was the first four-goal performance for a Gladiator since November 9th, 2014. The fans attributed to some record shattering as well, with 6,072 teddy bears being donated from the night’s high-flying festivities.
The victory lifts Atlanta to 26 points on the season. They reconvene on the ice next weekend in Greenville for back-to-back games on Friday and Saturday night.