DULUTH, GA – Trailing South Carolina by just two points in the standings for the final South Division playoff spot, the Gladiators hosted the Stingrays at the Infinite Energy Arena for a huge battle on Friday night. The Gladiators fell behind by three goals but rallied back to tie the game late, eventually winning the contest in an epic 11-round shootout.
The opening minutes were uneventful as both teams felt each other out, despite this being their eleventh meeting of the season. A breakaway by forward Derek Nesbitt resulted in a hooking penalty on South Carolina. Atlanta earned the first man-advantage of the night but failed to capitalize. A defensive first period eventually produced a scoring play for the visiting Stingrays in a wild fashion. Cameron Bakker and Tad Kozun found Mason Mitchell streaking to Sean Bonar's crease before his shot attempt caromed off defenders and attackers alike before trickling into the back of the net with 3:20 to play in the opening frame.
Despite seizing the advantage in zone time and shots in the middle frame, the Gladiators failed to turn the chances into the second goal of the game. Jonathan Charbonneau worked the puck loose in a corner battle to find Jordan Samuels-Thomas at the side of the net. He drifted towards the front of Bonar's net before scooting a shot past the netminder to double South Carolina's lead with 10:07 to play in the second period.
With 6:00 to play in the middle frame, Mitchell struck a second time, again with help from Bakker and Kozun. The hosting Gladiators did not dwell on their three-goal deficit for long, as Zach Malatesta sprung a scoring chance shortly after. His blue line pass found Brett McKenzie at a wide angle from Parker Milner's net. His wrist shot ended the Stingray goaltender's shutout bid and gave Atlanta more life. Their assault on Milner's cage continued through forty minutes of play, leading the shots category 30-12 after two periods.
Atlanta turned the lopsided shots advantage into another tally halfway through the third frame. Nolan LaPorte sailed a pass to Malatesta before he dished it to Matt Lane near the goal-line on the near side. His tight-angle shot slid underneath Milner and brought the Gladiators within one with 14:25 to play.
Continuing the heavy pressure, the line of Derek Nesbitt, Jared Ross and Nick Bligh finally produced a goal after a bevy of chances all night from the trio. Nesbitt took a feed from Olivier Galipeau just inside the ‘Rays line. He wound up for his famous slap shot, which fooled the visitors, then slid a pass to Bligh near the top of the crease. The team’s leading goal scorer added his 23rd of the season and his redirection slipped between the legs of Milner to tie the game with less than four minutes to go.
The game would ultimately head to overtime tied at three with both team’s earning a point. South Carolina got the better of the chances in OT, outshooting the Glads 5-2, but Bonar came to life, saving the game on numerous occasions. For the second time this season the Stingrays and Gladiators would duel for the final point in a shootout.
Andrew Cherinwchan scored the only goal of round one, and after a scoreless second round it was do or die for Atlanta in the final session. Brett McKenzie blasted a wrist shot past Milner to keep the Glads hopes alive on the Atlanta half of the third round. One of the most lethal shooters in the ECHL, Grant Besse, would be the shooter for the Stingrays looking to give the visitors the win. Bonar got a stick on the deke attempt and the game shifted to sudden death shootout.
The goalies would go on a tear and stop the next 14 consecutive shots. In the 11th round of the longest shootout this season, Alex Overhardt put the pressure on the Stingrays and deposited a backhand shot into the goal, setting up a chance for Bonar to win the game for the Gladiators. Tim Harrison would be selected to try and save the game for the road squad but was denied by Bonar on a five-hole attempt, winning the game for Atlanta. The Gladiators gained one point on the Stingrays in the standings and trail their South Division rival by one point with two games in hand.
Atlanta continues the late-season homestand this Friday at 7:35 pm as they host the Florida Everblades for Atlanta Hockey Heritage Night at the Infinite Energy Arena in Duluth, GA.