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Published: Saturday, 5/13/2006

Storm's raucous fans could not will team to win

The house was rockin'.

The joint was jumpin'.

You get the idea. The Sports Arena was alive with excitement last night, louder and more vibrant than at any time during this year's ECHL playoffs.

Welcome home, Storm. Toledo's got your back.

It sounded like fireworks were being set off inside the old barn when the Storm took a 1-0 lead in the first period, and later rallied to tie Gwinnett 2-2 in the second period of the American Conference finals.

Too bad the Storm couldn't match the performance of its die-hard fans, all 3,853 of them, the best Sports Arena turnout for the 2006 playoffs. Gwinnett 4, Toledo 2.

Tomorrow's Game 4 can't arrive soon enough for the Storm, which trails 2-1 in the series.

If the final period of last night's contest was any indication, Game 4 figures to be a rip-snortin' humdinger, featuring a determined and angry Storm squad on the verge of getting back in the series, or taking out its frustration on free-wheeling, in-your-face Gwinnett.

Look up the word ''chippy'' in the dictionary, and you have a microcosm of last night's third period. The teams combined for 14 penalties, as the referees were apparently paid by the penalty, and no goals.

It got ugly real fast, folks.

Toledo spent more time killing penalties than peppering Gwinnett goalie Sean Fields with shots.

It's hard to stage a comeback from the penalty box. The Storm recorded only four shots on goal in the third period, compared with 11 for Gwinnett.

Good thing the Storm has two more games at the Sports Arena. One home playoff game does not a playoff series make. Gwinnett is sleek, Toledo is scrappy.

On the smaller ice surface, the Storm's grit was expected to neutralize Gwinnett's spit-and-polish. Didn't happen.

From Toledo's perspective, the second period was all she wrote. The Storm was right in the game until a couple of defensive breakdowns gift-wrapped a pair of Gwinnett goals leading to a four-goal explosion.

Gwinnett didn't dominate the action, but the Gladiators made the most of their opportunities against the Storm, which had won 16 of 17 home games prior to last night.

This series is far from over. Gwinnett is good, but the Storm has already defeated the Gladiators on the road. Winning at home should be second nature to the Storm.

There's no reason why the Storm can't win the next two games at the Sports Arena and take a 3-2 series lead back to Georgia.

Now's the time when the Storm needs the full support of its fans more than ever. The fan turnout at previous Storm home playoff games paled in comparison to last night's gathering.

But what looked like a cause for celebration early for the Storm and its fans turned into a nightmarish ending. The game became a theater of the absurd with multiple player skirmishes, repeated stoppages in play and debris being tossed from the stands and littering the ice at the end.

In the playoffs, there's a fine line between winning and losing.

Unfortunately, the Storm crossed that line in Game 3.

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