DULUTH, Ga. – Given the fact that seven of the previous nine meetings between the Orlando Solar Bears and the Gwinnett Gladiators had been decided by one goal, it stood to reason that Thursday night’s game at the Arena at Gwinnett Center would be more of the same. It also turned out to be more of the same when it came to luck for the visitors.
Justin Bowers scored twice and Andy Brandt scored the game-winner with just over three minutes left in regulation as the host Gladiators edged the Solar Bears 5-4. The loss put another dent in Orlando’s playoff hopes as the expansion team trails Toledo by thirteen points for the eighth and final Eastern conference playoff spot with nine games to play.
Orlando’s decimated playing roster took another hit on Wednesday when forward C.J. Severyn was loaned to AHL Charlotte where he ironically became a teammate of Gwinnett’s leading scorer Casey Pierro-Zabotel who was also called up. Even without two top scorers in the lineups, the contest had a compelling storyline as Ryan Ginand, who was traded last week to the Gladiators by the Solar Bears, was facing his former teammates for the first time.
Unlike Sunday’s game against Trenton, Orlando (26-31-3-3) was able to survive an early push by the home team, killing off an early penalty as goalie Patrick Killeen was playing well. Things looked even better midway through the opening period when the Solar Bears power play cashed in.
The play started with good puck movement between Ryan Blair and Alain Goulet along the blue line. Goulet got himself in position to launch a shot at the Gwinnett net where Gladiators netminder Louis Domingue made the save. The rebound popped into the air where Scott Tanski showed great hand-eye coordination to bat it home for his ninth goal of the year.
Killeen held the fort until the 17:14 mark of the stanza when it took a superb individual effort to beat him. Gwinnett’s Doug Jones the puck on a swing around the Orlando net and made a beeline for the front. Finding some space, he turned and clanged a shot off the left goal post behind Killeen and in. The score, Jones’ 19th of the season, sent the teams to the first intermission tied at one.
In an attempt to take control of the game, Gwinnett (38-25-2-1) picked up the tempo in the second. The strategy worked early as the Gladiators took the lead for the first time 2:33 into the stanza. Following a failed attempt by the Solar Bears to clear their zone, Alex Belzile skated the puck to the bottom of the circle and made a cross-ice pass to Bowers who was alone on the backside post to ram it home.
Bowers struck again a little past the midpoint of the period, following up on the rebound of a shot by Corey Fienhage. The rebound came out at an angle to Bowers who banked a shot off an Orlando defender into the back of the net. Seconds later, Ginand rang a shot off the crossbar as the Gladiators tried for the kill shot but failed.
The clang of the iron appeared to wake up the Solar Bears. Moments after Ginand’s drive, Orlando moved the puck into the Gwinnett end where Ryan Berard tipped a shot by Jason Cohen on net and quickly converted the rebound for his first goal as a professional. The goal also provided the first pro points for Cohen and teammate Michael Lysyj who picked up the secondary helper.
Two minutes later, the Orlando power play picked up its second tally of the night.
Dale Mahovsky did the honors as he rapped home the rebound of a Goulet drive from the point for his ninth of the season. Now carrying the momentum, the Solar Bears finished off the period with Michael Neal setting up defenseman Michael Wilson for a shot into the bottom corner of the net with 15.8 ticks left on the clock. Wilson’s fifth of the season gave the visitors a one goal lead heading to the final period.
Whatever Gwinnett coach John Wroblewski said during the second intermission worked as his troops came out re-energized at the start of the third. Like they did for a good portion of the previous period, the Gladiators buzzed around Killeen with shots. Killeen (38 saves) did his best, keeping the opponents off the board past the halfway mark of the stanza.
Gwinnett finally cracked Killeen with 11:30 gone in the period. On the eighth shot by the home team, Yuri Bouharevich was able to perfectly place a wrist shot into the top corner past Killeen to tie the score. As time wound down, all of the 2,885 in attendance wondered who the hero would be. On this night it was Brandt, who dug the puck out of a scramble and found a way to squeeze the puck up and under the crossbar with 3:24 left. Orlando desperately tried to force the game into overtime, pulling Killeen for an extra attacker, but it was to no avail as Domingue shut the door.
The two teams will go at it again Friday night at the Arena at Gwinnett Center in a 7:35 p.m. face-off. They will then finish the season series with one last contest, also in Duluth, on Sunday afternoon.
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