Toledo could not withstand a nine-minute barrage from the Gwinnett Gladiators and then could not recover from the onslaught as the Storm dropped Game 3 of the ECHL American Conference finals last night.
Gwinnett scored four goals within a span of 8:44 in the second period. The explosive Gladiators grabbed the lead in the middle period and held on for a 4-2 victory before 3,853 fans at the Sports Arena last night.
"We were scrambling there," said Storm coach Nick Vitucci. "We weren't handling the puck with confidence. We were sloppy. We had too many turnovers and made too many slow-footed plays."
Gwinnett's Scott Mifsud scored goals on his first two shots in the second period to help the Gladiators take a 2-1 lead in the conference finals. Game 4 will be held at the Sports Arena tomorrow night at 6 p.m. and a potentially decisive Game 5 will be played on Tuesday.
Gwinnett scored four times on 13 shots in the second period. The Gladiators scored twice on consecutive shots to take their first lead and then scored again on back-to-back shots to go up by two goals. Both sets of goals came within about a minute of each other with the Storm scuffling around.
"We always get a lot of chances," said Gwinnett coach Jeff Pyle, whose team finished with 32 shots. "We took advantage of their mistakes in the second period. Now we're up 2-1 and we know we're going back to Gwinnett. But one game is nothing. Until we get four, this means nothing."
Matt Zultek and Adam Keefe both scored for Toledo on the power play over the first two periods. But the Storm fell behind by two and had its comeback bid hampered by having to kill six power plays in the third period. Toledo managed just four shots in a final period that got ugly and chippy quickly.
Toledo finished with only 22 shots and was whistled for 16 penalties. Gwinnett was 1-of-12 on the power play.
The crowd was up in arms in the third period, taking issue with several questionable calls and non-calls by referee David Banfield. The Storm was forced to kill off a four-minute penalty at the beginning of the third,
severely hampering a rally.
Toledo had won 16 of its last 17 at the Sports Arena, while Gwinnett remained perfect (4-0) on the road in the playoffs.
Pyle started goalie Sean Fields for the first time in the series. Fields made 20 saves, and improved to 3-1 in the playoffs. Toledo goalie Logan Koopmans (2-4) finished with 28 saves.
Zultek tallied a nifty goal on the power play with 3:46 left in the first period to open the scoring. Zultek corralled his own rebound and backhanded it out of midair past Fields. It was Zultek's sixth goal of the postseason.
Gwinnett then tied it at 1 just seconds after its third power play had ended early in the second period. Mifsud posted his fourth of the playoffs 2:10 into the second period.
Just 1:13 later, Gwinnett defenseman John Awe one-timed a faceoff and beat Koopmans. Gwinnett scored on two consecutive shots to take a 2-1 lead 3:13 into the second period.
But the cushion did not last long as Keefe knotted it again with a power play goal. Keefe lifted a rebound over Fields' right shoulder to make it 2-2 with 12:50 to go in the second period.
However, the Gladiators then scored two goals in a span of 53 seconds, once again on consecutive shots.
"Both teams are talented hockey teams," Pyle said. "It's a matter of who plays the smartest and makes the least mistakes."
Troy Milam restored Gwinnett's lead and Mifsud tallied his second on a rebound to make it 4-2 with 9:06 left in the middle period.
"We have not been playing consistent hockey," said Storm captain Jason Maleyko. "Once they scored we couldn't get anything going. They are a momentum team. We were running around in our own end. They were just flying around out there and completely took the momentum."
Maleyko said the team needs to wipe the slate clean and put together a full 60 minutes tomorrow.
"We just have to be better on Sunday and rebound from this," Vitucci agreed. "They are too good of a team to allow them to play in our half of the rink. We
finally got mad in the third period, but we should have been doing that from the get-go."
KELLY CUP NOTES: Bad ice created a bumpy surface and slowed the puck throughout the contest. The ice had been covered for a concert Wednesday and did not fully re-freeze in a warm Sports Arena last night. The Storm was the beneficiary of four power plays in the opening period, but scored just once. Toledo finished 2-of-7 with the man advantage. This is the farthest into May that a Storm team has still been playing hockey. Gwinnett forward Milan Gajic, who recently graduated from the University of Michigan, leads the Gladiators with seven goals in the playoffs.
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