N. CHARLESTON, SC - In the first leg of a two-game weekend series to decide a postseason spot, the Atlanta Gladiators fell short in a 5-3 loss to the South Carolina Stingrays. Atlanta overcame a 3-0 deficit to tie the game in the third period before succumbing to the Stingrays. Sunday's regular-season finale will decide the South Division's last playoff position.
The energy of the playoff pressure in the game was immediately shifted to discontent on Atlanta's bench. Jake Flegel appeared to receive a high stick from a South Carolina defender, but no call was made. Moments later, Zach Malatesta was called for a five-minute major penalty on a high hit. This opened the door for the Stingrays to snag an early lead and ended Malatesta's night. The Gladiators' penalty kill stood tall and negated the five-minute man-advantage for South Carolina. After navigating the early trouble, the Gladiators conceded that opening tally to the hosting Stingrays. Ryker Killins found Cameron Heath in front of Sean Bonar's crease before a save, but Tad Kozun was there to tap in the second chance and give South Carolina the early lead with 10:51 to play in the first period.
Atlanta looked to close out the opening frame trailing by just one, but a breakdown led to the South Carolina lead ballooning to two. Mason Mitchell and Andrew Cherniwchan found Cameron Askew to make it 2-0 Stingrays with :44 seconds remaining in the first period. The Gladiators continued to hunker down defensively while trying to generate offensive momentum.
A roughing penalty on South Carolina provided a chance to cut the deficit in half, and Atlanta appeared to do just that, seconds after the beginning of the power play. Nolan LaPorte had the puck carom off his left leg and bounce beyond Parker Milner in net. Derek Nesbitt tapped in what appeared to be the opening goal of the night for the visitors. The tally was waved off due to the perception that the puck was sent to Nesbitt with a hand pass, irritating the Gladiators’ bench. Despite the call, Atlanta still managed to earn :53 seconds of 5-on-3 power play time but failed to capitalize. It was the hosting Stingrays that struck again with 10:01 to play in the second period after Askew netted his second of the night.
For the second time on the night, a puck from the stick of Nesbitt found the back of the net. Only one of those counted, but a feed from Nick Bligh to the Seaforth, ON native got the Gladiators on the board with 6:16 to play in the middle frame. A last-second save before the final horn of the second period kept Atlanta within two goals, and a high-sticking penalty on the Stingrays gave the visitors a great opportunity on a four-minute power play to open the third frame.
Matt Lane found Brett McKenzie on the top of the near-side circle before he scrambled to find Nick Bligh open in the slot. The Boston, MA native netted his 27th goal of the season less than three minutes into the period. They rode the new-found wave of energy to the game-tying tally with 10:12 to play in regulation. McKenzie found LaPorte before the puck found Joel Messner crashing the net. His one-handed poke of the puck slipped under Milner to even the game at three.
The comeback train seemed to run out of steam in the final minute. Jordan Samuels-Thomas, by way of Grant Besse and Stephane Legault, found the back of the net for the decisive goal with only :50 remaining in regulation. An empty-net tally from the ‘Rays finished off the contest, giving South Carolina a win in their final home game of the year.
The same two teams meet up Sunday afternoon in the final regular season contest of the year. The Stingrays lead the Gladiators by one point for the final playoff position. Atlanta needs a regulation win to secure that postseason berth. Puck drop is set for 3:05 PM and you can get your tickets at atlantagladiators.com!