DULUTH, GA - The stage was set in a do-or-die contest on the last day of the regular season at the Infinite Energy Center, as the Atlanta Gladiators and South Carolina Stingrays locked horns for the final time to determine who would advance to the postseason. An intense contest was tied after two periods, but saw the visitors edge the hometown Gladiators 3-2 to end the 2018-2019 season just shy of a postseason berth.
The energy was palpable in the regular-season finale as those in attendance celebrated Fan Appreciation Night. Early tenacity from the starting line resulted in a power play opportunity for Atlanta. Though they failed to turn the man-advantage into an early tally, Zach Malatesta's effort and toughness in earning the penalty set the tone for the night and energized the 5,429 in the building. Atlanta could not turn the early mood into the opening goal, as South Carolina needed just :13 seconds of power play time to find the back of the net. Ryker Killins and Joey Leach found Tad Kozun on a redirection that fluttered over Sean Bonar and into the net with 4:14 to play in the opening frame.
The visiting Stingrays seemed to have quelled the early energy in the Infinite Energy Center in the opening minutes of the middle frame, but it was Bonar and the defense holding strong to keep Atlanta down just one goal. A power play opportunity in the middle of the period began to build momentum in the offensive zone for the Gladiators. That culminated in a game-tying play that started when Justin MacDonald fed Joel Messner, coming into the game on a 3-game point streak, at the blue line. His long-range blast sent South Carolina netminder Parker Milner diving to his right, but Nolan LaPorte's redirection sent the puck the other way. The scrambling goalie could not recover and the deflected puck trickled into the net with 11:24 to play in the second period.
The tension was high as the third period clicked on, both teams knowing what results were needed to earn a postseason berth. Plenty of great opportunities were stymied by Bonar and Milner, but it was an innocent turnover that resulted in a shot on Bonar half way through the third. The rebound fell to the skate blade of Andrew Cherniwchan, who buried the shot to give South Carolina the lead with 10:06 to play. Atlanta brought the pressure, understanding the challenge in front of them, but the effort resulted in a roughing penalty that put South Carolina on the man-advantage. Despite the disadvantage, the Gladiators kept fighting. Nolan LaPorte and Matt Lane found Brett McKenzie in the slot and his one-timer found the back of the net to level the game at two with :52 seconds to play. Atlanta took a timeout, knowing a regulation win was all that would do. Eight seconds after the face-off, Mason Mitchell netted the go-ahead goal for the Stingrays and held on for the 3-2 win.
The win leaves the Gladiators just shy of the postseason as South Carolina advances to the South Division Semifinals later this week. The Atlanta Gladiators thank all the fans that supported the team throughout the season. Keep up with the team on social media and at atlantagladiators.com throughout the summer!