Double fantasy: Royals beat Gladiators again for weekend sweep

If the prospect of the two best teams in the entire Eastern Conference of the ECHL isn’t enough to restore your faith in the relevance of minor-league hockey, I don’t know what to tell you.

In front of a crowd announced as 3,482 but which seemed much more vocal than that, the Reading Royals and Gwinnett Gladiators tussled for a second consecutive night, with the hosts coming away with a 6-3 victory and weekend sweep.

David Marshall scored twice, Kirk MacDonald added a goal with two helpers, Adam Comrie and Ethan Cox chimed in with a score and assist each, and Philipp Grubauer made 24 saves for Reading (21-7-1), which won both games this weekend and hold an eight-game win streak overall.

“It’s a lot more fun playing teams like this,” MacDonald said. “It’s easy to get up for it. It’s more of a playoff atmosphere. It’s a real test.”

Nonetheless, head coach Larry Courville cautioned against any premature celebrations with less than half the schedule played despite his club having won 20 of their last 22 games: “What matters is if you win at the end and hold up the (Kelly) Cup. Until we do that, anybody can beat anybody on any night in this league.”

Tyler Murovich totaled a goal and two assists, Christian Ouellet and Scott Arnold also tallied, but Louis Domingue was punctured for all six goals on 41 shots as Gwinnett (19-10-1) lost its third straight contest.

Gwinnett came out firing in the third, getting within 4-2 just 22 seconds into the period on a stuffer from the right side by Murovich, then Grubauer had to be sharp on back-to-back shifts to turn aside breakaway chances by Evan Bloodoff and Jason Clark to keep it a two-goal margin.

But Marshall extended Reading’s advantage back to three, at 5-2, when his otherwise harmless, unscreened wrister from the right circle slipped between the crook of the right arm of Domingue just after the midway point. And when Cox redirected a Barry Almeida pass up and over Domingue from atop the crease, it was a four-goal advantage with 4:27 to play and the outcome no longer in doubt.

Arnold’s salvo — his first of the season — 90 seconds later pulled the visitors within 6-3 but was the last good chance for the Gladiators.

Joel Champagne netted the first goal of the evening, at the 6:16 mark of the opening period. Yannick Tifu worked the puck down low from the left wing to MacDonald, and his centering pass from behind the net was redirected home by the burly forward, who shook off a defender just outside the crease for his ninth of the season.

The hosts squandered a huge opportunity to seize control of the game, coming up empty on 1:40 worth of a 5-on-3 after to penalties by Clark and Justin Weller 20 seconds apart.

Seconds after the one-man edge expired, Gwinnett burst into the Reading zone and Grubauer was unable to properly steer an Arnold shot from the slot away from harm. Ouellet had peeled off towards the left circle, but the puck found him there and he shoveled it home on the backhand with 1:47 to play for a 1-1 game.

“For the last month or so, we concentrated on how we want to start, especially at home. It’s a key thing to get a good start,” said Cox at intermission. “To be the best, you’ve gotta beat the best, and we have to figure out a way to maintain that pace, that composure to finish them off.”

MacDonald came to Denny Urban’s rescue early in the second period, engaging Arnold in the Reading defensive zone after Arnold dished out an elbow to the just-returned defenseman who was facing the glass at the end boards. Arnold was hit with a major for boarding, MacDonald got a minor for roughing, but added some extra karma a short time later.

On yet another long two-man advantage thanks to a Casey Fienhage slashing call, MacDonald’s attempted pass from the left side through the crease to Tifu instead changed direction off the skate of Gladiators defenseman Cody Brookwell and into the net off the far post. It was a 2-1 Royals edge at 5:38, coming just three seconds before the conclusion of that 5-on-3.

The hosts went up 3-1 with 5:21 left in the second on a fluke shot, as Marshall somehow managed to slip a backhander through Domingue’s pads from the goal line while facing the end boards.

Things continued to look bright for the Royals when Cox dished cross ice to Comrie for a blistering one-timer and 4-1 advantage with 1:28 remaining in the middle stanza.

Notes: Reading improved to 15-0-0 this season when scoring four goals or more…Prior to this weekend set, Hershey came calling and promoted forward Stan Galiev…Urban made his first appearance with the Royals since being recalled from a loan to the Worcester Sharks of the AHL…The Leos face three straight against Trenton next weekend, with road games on Thursday and Saturday bookending a Friday home date.