By: Chris Greene | Follow me on Twitter @cgreenesports
The Atlanta Gladiators franchise-record win streak came to an end on a valentines day, following a humbling defeat at the hands of the Newfoundland Growlers. The result was quickly forgotten, and the Glads began a new streak with victories over Greenville and South Carolina to complete a thrilling weekend of hockey.
Atlanta’s game against the Newfoundland Growlers was postponed by a day due to bad weather, but that didn’t slow the visitors down. They took the lead in the seventh minute with a goal from Giorgio Estephan. Eight seconds later, the Growlers doubled their lead with a goal from Brady Ferguson. The Gladiators struggled to establish themselves, and just after the 10-minute mark, they were three goals down, after J.J. Piccinich beat Sean Bonar in the Atlanta net. Less than a minute later Josh Kestner made the score 4-0, the first intermission could not come soon enough for the Gladiators.
The Growlers dominance continued into the second period, they peppered Atlanta’s net with shots before James Melindy made the score 5-0, prompting the Glads to replace Sean Bonar with Michael Bitzer. The change did not slow down Newfoundland, as Brady Ferguson scored his second of the night. After giving the visitors a six-goal head start, the Glads finally got on the board with a goal from Daniel Leavens. His effort was canceled out a minute later when Giorgio Estephan bagged his second goal, making the score 7-1 after two periods. The Growlers showed no mercy in the third period, the Glads managed to keep the puck out of their net for seven minutes before Derian Plouffe scored. Matt Lane scored for Atlanta to make the score 8-2, but it was a disappointing night for the home team.
After their worst defeat of the season, the Glads hosted the Greenville Swamp Rabbits. Jeff Pyle’s men were determined to get back to winning ways. Following the previous night’s blowout, Michael Bitzer was given the start between the pipes over Sean Bonar. After a scoreless first period, Joe Widmar put Atlanta ahead halfway through the second. Joel Messner doubled the Glads lead moments later, and the home team looked comfortable heading into the second intermission. Daniel Leavens finished off the Swamp Rabbits early in the third, the visitors were unable to trouble Bitzer, who recorded his first professional shutout. 3-0 the final score.
The Glads wrapped up week 19 with a visit to South Carolina to take on the Stingrays. It was Derek Nesbitt’s 900th professional game, another milestone for the veteran forward. Justin MacDonald gave Atlanta an early lead before Grant Besse leveled for the ‘Rays. Neither side could score during the second period, despite both having chances. The Stingrays snatched the lead with less than 10 minutes to go, with a goal from Mike Chen. Despite going a goal down late on, the Glads kept their cool and managed to tie the game with a goal from Filip Pyrochta. Moments later, Nick Bligh put Atlanta ahead with a power-play goal before Joel Messner sealed the win with an empty netter. The Gladiators were fully deserving of the 4-2 win.
The results leave Atlanta fifth in the South Division, three points clear of the Norfolk Admirals and just five points behind the South Carolina Stingrays and a playoff spot. The Gladiators will head to South Dakota for week 20 and play three games against the Rapid City Rush. They still have a lot of work to do, but the Glads will be determined to reach the playoffs.