The Race For The Playoffs Is On
In the most pulse-pounding game of the season, the Atlanta Gladiators nabbed a 4-3 victory over the Orlando Solar Bears Saturday night at Infinite Energy Arena. The largest crowd of the year provided an energetic setting for a critical matchup as Atlanta looked to draw closer in the race for the final playoff spot in the South Division. Joe Widmar netted two goals, including the game-winner with just :03 seconds remaining.
Atlanta channeled that energy on the ice in the opening period. It started with their first power play opportunity of the night after a tripping call on Orlando less than five minutes into the contest. Justin MacDonald fed Joel Messner at the blue line before the Lorette, MB native sent a shot sailing beyond Martin Ouellette’s goal. The rebound from the boards found the stick of Nick Bligh, who pushed the rebound past the Solar Bear net minder to elate the raucous crowd.
In a nearly identical first period to the matchup between the two teams a week prior, Atlanta continued to pressure the visitors. The next scoring sequence began in a familiar fashion: a Widmar face-off win. He won the puck to Messner at the blue line, who fed team co-captain Derek Nesbitt in the middle of the slot. He found the night’s first goal scorer, Bligh, at the edge of the crease. His feed to the backside of Ouellette found Widmar, who netted the goal to double the advantage just :95 seconds before the first intermission.
As expected, Orlando came out of the break with a considerable amount of energy. After a flurry of offensive zone threats by the Solar Bears, Carter Struthers found Colby McAuley. His pass found Mike Robinson, and the Stouffville, ON product buried the chance to cut Atlanta’s lead in half.
The Solar Bears seemed to bring things level more than once in the middle frame. A puck found the back of the net for Orlando with 7:36 remaining in the second, but head referee Andrew Bruggeman ruled it was played with a high stick and negated the score. Roughly two minutes later, an Orlando shot found the back of Sean Bonar’s net again. Once again, Bruggeman ruled no goal after Bonar’s stick was dislodged from his grasp before the chance.
A third goal in the net finally worked for the visitors, as Alex Schoenborn and Matthew Spencer assisted Chris Leblanc in finding the game-tying goal with 2:07 to play in the second period.
The final frame was a tense battle that traded scarce offensive chances, but Atlanta found a way to capitalize with 7:24 remaining. Defenseman Brian Cooper, recently named a co-captain after joining the Gladiators, gathered a puck at the blue line and looked to dish it across the ice. He fooled nearly all of the 10,243 in attendance with his fake pass. His no-look shot beat Ouellette to regain the lead.
Bonar appeared to stop a trickling Orlando shot with just :74 seconds remaining in regulation before the referee ruled a goal for the visitors. Upon review, the goal by Alex Schoenborn stood bringing the Solar Bears even.
Atlanta earned a power play opportunity with just :22 seconds, leaving most believing the contest was heading to an overtime period. In the waning seconds, Messner sent a blue line pass to MacDonald at the far-side half boards. He skated to the top of the face-off circle before sending Atlanta’s last shot on goal. The puck bounced in front of Ouellette, where the hero, Widmar, stood to bury the go-ahead goal with :03 seconds remaining on the clock.
The euphoric win lifted the Gladiators to 39 points on the season, just eight points behind Orlando for the final playoff position. The win also extended Atlanta’s point streak to nine games.
The Gladiators next face the Swamp Rabbits in Greenville on Monday night at 7:00 PM before returning home for a 10:35 AM bout with the South Carolina Stingrays on Thursday, February 7th.