ESTERO, FL - After a few disappointing results in southwest Florida against the conference-leading Everblades, the Atlanta Gladiators rallied to earn a point in a hard-fought shootout loss Saturday night at Hertz Arena. The point keeps Atlanta within two points of South Carolina and the crucial final playoff spot with two games in hand.
Atlanta wasted no time jumping all over the hometown Everblades. It started with defenseman Zach Malatesta. Playing in his first game in a Gladiator uniform, John Furgele fed Malatesta before his blast from the slot gave the Glads a 1-0 lead with 9:08 to play in the opening period. The Gladiators doubled that advantage after Jack Stander and Justin MacDonald found forward Brett McKenzie streaking towards the crease of the Florida netminder. His finish gave Atlanta a robust 2-0 lead with 7:41 to play in the opening frame. Not to be denied in the first period in their home arena, Florida answered quickly. On a 5-on-3 penalty, the 'Blade finally found the back of the net via Blake Winiecki with 4:24 to play in the first.
The division-leading Everblades mounted more offensive zone pressure in the second period and eventually capitalized in the middle frame. Nathan Perkovich and Winiecki fed Matt Finn on the backside of Michael Bitzer's net before he fired to tie the game at two, just shy of four minutes into the second period. The perpetual Gladiator killer, Winiecki struck again on an Atlanta power play in the waning minutes of the second period. A steal and breakaway produced an easy scoring chance and Florida took advantage. The home team took a 3-2 lead to the locker room at the second intermission.
The visiting Gladiators gained another advantageous power play, with a second 5-on-3 situation giving Atlanta a chance to even the game. MacDonald and McKenzie found Nick Bligh in front of the net before the Glads' leading goal scorer buried the short chance to tie the game at three 5:27 into the third frame. Sixty minutes could not decide the tight contest as the pesky Glads forced overtime against the playoff-bound Everblades. The five extra minutes did not yield a goal and forced a shootout.
Atlanta failed to solve Florida's netminder in the shootout, but 'Blades forward Kyle Platzer snuck a trickling puck past Michael Bitzer and that would be enough to lift the home team to a narrow victory.
The Gladiators conclude this road trip Sunday with an afternoon visit to the Jacksonville Icemen. Puck drop is set for 3:00 PM on the Gladiators Radio Network. Atlanta returns to Infinite Energy Arena next week, including Hockey Heritage Night against Florida on Friday, March 15th. Puck drop is 7:35 PM and you can get your tickets today at atlantagladiators.com!