By: Chris Greene | Follow me on Twitter @cgreenesports
The Gladiators march to the playoffs continues after another record-breaking week. Three wins and an overtime loss extends the teams unbeaten run to a franchise-record 13 games. Atlanta has moved up to fifth in the South Division standings and only six points behind the playoff places.
Week 18 began with a trip to Greenville to take on the struggling Swamp Rabbits. After a disappointing opening period, the Glads trailed 2-0 at the break courtesy of goals from Michael Pelech and Luke Ripley. Atlanta recovered well in the second period and tied the score with goals from Daniel Leavens and Alex Overhardt. The game was evenly poised heading into the final frame. As the minutes ticked by, the Gladiators took the lead with a goal from Derek Nesbitt. It looked like Atlanta had secured the win before Jake Bolton scored for the hosts in the final moments, sending the game into overtime. After a nervous couple of minutes, Kamerin Nault netted the winner for the Swamp Rabbits, 4-3 the final score.
With Greenville out of the way, the South Carolina Stingrays were in town for the first of two back to back games at the Infinite Energy Arena. Atlanta established a comfortable lead with first period goals from Avery Peterson and Brett McKenzie. The home team continued to extend their lead in the second period, with Justin MacDonald and Olivier Galipeau finding the net. The struggling Stingrays found their first goal of the night in the final minute of the second when Grant Besse scored to make it 4-1 after two.
The game was all but over heading into the final frame of regulation, but the visitors hadn’t given up hope. Patrick Gaul put the puck in the net just 12 seconds into the third period to keep the game alive. Two more goals in quick succession from Matt Pohlkamp and Tim Harrison tied the game at 4-4, much to the frustration of Atlanta coach Jeff Pyle. Derek Nesbitt restored the hosts lead but in the final minute of the third, Tim Davison pulled the Stingrays level, sending the game to overtime. After dominating the first two periods, the Gladiators were determined to finish the job. Brett McKenzie sealed the two points with his second goal of the night, much to the relief of coach Pyle, 6-5 the final score.
With South Carolina out for revenge, the stage was set for the rematch. Joseph Widmar scored the only goal of the first period, giving Atlanta the lead at the first intermission. After the break, Stingrays forward, Grant Besse, continued his impressive form against the Glads and tied the game 1-1 in the second period. Both teams had chances but neither side could find a second goal before the end of the third. Atlanta went into overtime for the third straight game. It only took 31 seconds for Justin MacDonald to save the day for the hosts, a fully deserved win for the home team, 2-1 the final score.
After the intense double-header against the Stingrays, the Glads took on the Norfolk Admirals for their fourth and final game of the week. Atlanta started the game well, but it was the hosts that lead after the first period, thanks to a goal from Matt McMorrow. Despite out-shooting their opponents, the Gladiators could not find the net until Nolan LaPorte buried the puck just before the end of the second period. 1-1 the score after two.
After the interval, Atlanta took the lead with a power-play goal from Nick Bligh. After some early frustration, the floodgates had finally opened and the goals started to flow for the visitors. Justin MacDonald scored the Gladiators third shortly before Nolan LaPorte tallied his second of the night, completing the comeback. 4-1 the final score.
It was another impressive week for the Gladiators who have been on fire since the new year. Justin MacDonald had a huge week scoring three goals and adding five assists. He was named ECHL player of the week. It is great to see individual players recognized, but more importantly, the team is playing well and getting good results. It seemed impossible back in December, but Atlanta has finally become a playoff contender.