By: Chris Greene | Follow me on Twitter @cgreenesports
The Atlanta Gladiators season came to an end on Sunday as they came up short against the South Carolina Stingrays. The Glads fought hard all week but an overtime loss to Orlando followed by two defeats against South Carolina left them three points short of the playoffs after 72 games.
The week began in Orlando where the Glads faced off against the Solar Bears for the last time this season. Determined to get ahead of South Carolina in the playoff race, Atlanta took the lead midway through the first period with a power play goal from Nolan LaPorte, assisted by Justin MacDonald and Joel Messner. The Glads doubled their lead four minutes later when Brett McKenzie found the net with help from Jake Flegal and Hugo Roy. The home team fought back in the second, forcing save after save from Sean Bonar who was doing an incredible job in the Atlanta goal. Orlando finally beat Bonar with less than two minutes remaining in the second, Chris LeBlanc the scorer. The third frame began with another Orlando goal, Alexander Kuqali leveled for the hosts. Neither team could add to the score before the end of regulation so the game went into overtime. Colby McAuley sealed the comeback for Orlando after four minutes, 3-2 the final score.
After the Orlando game, the Glads traveled to South Carolina for the first of two matches against the Stingrays to decide the final playoff place. As expected it was an exciting start, with both teams desperate to establish a lead. Tad Kozun put the hosts ahead after nine minutes. Cameron Askew doubled the ‘Rays lead in the final minute of the first, putting the Glads two down at the break. Atlanta came out swinging in the second but could not find the back of the net before Askew put South Carolina three goals ahead. Atlanta refused to give in and Derek Nesbitt finally got them a goal to kick-start the comeback, assisted by Nick Bligh and Hugo Roy, ending the second period 3-1.
The Glads were awarded a power play early in the third period, they took full advantage of the opportunity and Bligh scored with help from Brett McKenzie and Matt Lane. Coach Pyle’s men kept going and Joel Messner scored a stunning one-handed goal to tie the game, LaPorte and McKenzie were credited with the assists. The Glads had the momentum but were stunned in the final minute of regulation when Jordan Samuels-Thomas put the ‘Rays back into the lead. Seconds later Kozun scored an empty-netter to complete a 5-3 win for South Carolina, a bitter result for Atlanta who fought hard to get back into contention.
The Stingrays were in Atlanta for the final game of the regular season. For the Gladiators, the objective was simple; a win in regulation would see them into the playoffs, any other result and it would be South Carolina heading into the postseason. The ‘Rays were the first to score, a power-play goal from Kozun on 15 minutes gave them the lead heading into the first intermission. LaPorte scored the only goal of the second period with help from Messner and MacDonald, giving the Glads 20 minutes to beat the Stingrays to the playoffs. Andrew Cherniwchan scored for SC with about 10 minutes left in the game. Atlanta needed two goals to keep their season alive, with time running out McKenzie scored to tie the game with less than a minute to play, Lane and LaPorte with the assists. With the crowd on the edge their seats, willing their team on, Mason Mitchell scored off the faceoff, sending South Carolina to the playoffs. It was a cruel way to end the season, and the Gladiators bowed out with a 3-2 loss.
The Glads deserve credit for turning their season around. Last Christmas they were dead and buried, lurking at the bottom of the ECHL standings. Coach Pyle rallied the team and they started 2019 with a franchise record point streak. They began to climb the South Division standings and came very close to fighting their way into the playoffs. Although they did not make the postseason, the Glads have built a solid platform to build on for next season.