DULUTH, GA – The Atlanta Gladiators conquered the South Carolina Stingrays 4-3 in a signature shootout win Thursday night. Newly-acquired G Chris Nell made 30 saves in his Gladiator debut, and stopped all three shots he faced in the shootout to secure the Glads’ win.
Following a four-day holiday break after their last contest on December 21st, the Gladiators brought a renewed sense of energy to kick off the game with a team boasting a division-leading 46 points on the season. Atlanta’s defensive pressure and forechecking prowess disrupted the usually-smooth Stingrays’ offense. The Glads finally capitalized on the spirited play with 13:41 remaining in the opening frame. F Logan Nelson found captain Derek Nesbitt just inside the offensive zone blue line before the South Carolina defense failed to rotate to him. Nesbitt skated towards the edge of the face-off circle before rifling a shot to G Parker Milner’s goal crease. F Nick Bligh redirected the blast beyond the league leader in GAA (1.79 coming into Thursday night) to put the Glads on top. Bligh’s eighth goal of the season rewarded Atlanta for their intensive effort in the opening period.
It took just :15 seconds in the middle period to undo the lead the Glads had built. D Tommy Hughes and F Cole Ully found South Carolina captain Andrew Cherniwchan in an open space in the slot. The 2019 ECHL All Star lifted a shot by Nell to tie the game. Less than four minutes later, the visitors struck again. F Tim Harrison found F Cameron Askew for his fourth goal of the campaign to give the ‘Rays their first lead of the game. In the waning minutes of the second, Atlanta looked to clear the puck and keep the deficit manageable. They nearly accomplished that goal, but D Tariq Hammond found F Matthew Weis for the third Stingrays’ goal of the frame with :19 seconds to play.
Atlanta opened the third period with an intense, physical energy, but could not capitalize on it. It was F Samuel Asselin taking matters into his own hands with 12:51 to play. He gathered the puck from F Zach Malatesta in the in the corner before swinging around Milner’s net for a wrap-around chance. The Repentigny, QC native spooned the shot by Milner and inside the far goal post to bring Atlanta within one.
South Carolina’s second-rated penalty kill had stymied the Gladiators’ eighth-rated power play unit in the first two opportunities of the night. Atlanta’s man-advantage would break through in a crucial moment with 5:29 to play in regulation. D Joel Messner and Bligh skittered the puck into the corner where F Eric Neiley would win a puck battle. He skated behind the Stingrays’ net, looking to feed the puck to the blue line before crashing towards Milner’s crease and shoveling the puck past to tie the game at three. Despite the momentum, the Glads could not find a regulation winner and went to overtime for just the second time this season.
After back-and-forth action in the seven minute 3-on-3, neither team could break through. For the first time in the 2019-2020 campaign, the Gladiators went to a shootout. After both skaters were stopped by the respective goaltenders in the first round, Asselin found the back of the net for the second time in the game. His tally set up G Chris Nell for the final stanza of the night. The journeyman goalie stopped all three shots, including besting Ully on the final chance, to lift the Gladiators to a resounding victory.
The win snapped a five-game losing streak and handed South Carolina just their sixth defeat of any kind on the season. The Gladiators return to home ice on Friday, December 27thwhen they square off with these same South Carolina Stingrays at 6:30 PM. Fans are encouraged to bring new or gently used coats for donation, and can receive discounted tickets for doing so. Fans can also snag their tickets now for Friday’s matchup.