DULUTH, Ga. - ECHL MVP Jeff Campbell scored the game-winning goal with less than four minutes left in regulation and Gwinnett went on to a 5-3 win over Toledo in Game 1 of the American Conference finals last night.
The goal provided Gwinnett its first lead since Guillaume Desbiens scored 2:04 into the game and foiled the Storm's attempt to steal away home-ice advantage before 3,941 at the Arena at Gwinnett Center. Toledo couldn't hang on as the league's most potent offense rallied from a 3-1 first-period deficit.
Desbiens' hat trick helped resuscitate the Gladiators after they flat-lined in the second period. The rookie under contract to the Atlanta Thrashers began Gwinnett's rally with six seconds left in the second and capped the night with an empty-netter.
"It's disappointing, obviously," Storm coach Nick Vitucci said. "Basically in 20 minutes and six seconds we had four goals against us. I think we feel like we let one slip away from us.
"That being said, Gwinnett's a heck of a hockey team and we learned a valuable lesson tonight, especially in the second period, that we just can't sit back against that hockey team. They're just going to take everything we give to them."
Game 2 is in Duluth on Monday at 7:05 p.m. and the Gladiators know they need to play 60 minutes to keep the Storm, which was without No. 1 goalie Drew MacIntyre, from tying the best-of-seven series.
"We were awful," Gwinnett coach Jeff Pyle said. "They were better. They wanted it more. They were more disciplined. They were more committed. And, realistically, we didn't deserve this game.
"I mean, the way the boys came back, from their heart, I love them. But that was just awful."
Desbiens made quite an impression as this series got under way, scoring his first goal of the night on the power play and then laying out Toledo's Mike James just minutes after the Storm winger helped tie the game at 1.
Desbiens was on the doorstep to pound a rebound past goalie Logan Koopmans after Derek Nesbitt missed a try from the opposite side, giving Gwinnett a short-lived lead.
James fed Chris Blight from behind the net 35 seconds later to even the score, then had to be carried off the ice by two teammates after Desbiens hammered him in the corner. James' helmet went flying and the third-year pro was still draped like a rag doll minutes later when he was finally lifted through the bench door off the ice.
James did not return and was still being evaluated at the hospital after the game, but his teammates took advantage of a couple power plays to gain a 3-1 lead before the first intermission.
Matt Zultek's rebound came to Scooter Smith at the right post and Smith potted his third goal of the postseason at 15:07. Zultek doubled Toledo's lead at 17:44, roofing a shot as he fell to the ice in the slot.
"[Toledo] is going to clutch and grab and slow us down, but we've got to get our legs moving," Pyle said. "We have to get back to our systems and be more consistent."
Gwinnett was not only outscored 3-1 in the period, it was uncharacteristically outshot by the same ratio (18-6). The Gladiators got to Koopmans a little more in the second and, thanks to Desbiens, trimmed the deficit to 3-2. Desbiens scored on the power play with six seconds left in the period, giving Gwinnett some momentum headed into the final period.
"We've got a lot of power offensively," he said. "We just have to be careful because they're a lot better team defensively than Florida was [in the division finals]. We have to be careful not to get behind two, three goals every game."
The Gladiators carried that spark into the third and tied the game by converting for the third time on the power play - a highsticking double minor on Jeff Attard that had Vitucci kicking the back wall of the bench.36.30293 -111.4596
ECHL MVP Jeff Campbell scored the game-winning goal with less than four minutes left in regulation and Gwinnett went on to a 5-3 win over Toledo in Game 1 of the American Conference finals last night.