The Gwinnett Gladiators are the best team in the ECHL. They have disposed of the Augusta Lynx in the first two regular-season matchups.
Yet surprisingly, when the first-place Gladiators came to town Saturday for their third matchup against their Interstate 20 rival, Augusta's best player wasn't on the ice.
Actually, Jason Saal wasn't even on the bench. The veteran goalie watched from the runway leading from the Lynx dressing room to the ice.
Perhaps Saal wouldn't have made a difference anyway, as the Gladiators handed the Lynx a 4-0 defeat at Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center.
There might have been no stopping rookie Phil Lewandowski in his best game as a pro, as he netted a pair of goals and added an assist for Gwinnett. And there certainly were no answers for Gwinnett goalie Michael Garnett, who posted his second shutout with a 29-save performance.
But one couldn't help but second guess coach Stan Drulia's decision to start rookie Peter Hamerlik against the league's premier team, instead of Saal, who has been Augusta's undisputed MVP through 20 games.
"I don't second guess the decision because Jason just needed a night off tonight," Drulia said. "And Hammer earned the right to play. He stole us a point his last start against Reading (Nov. 30), and deserved a chance to show what he could do."
One theory behind Saal's mysterious absence was he suffered an injury in Friday's win over Greenville. Drulia refuted that, saying Saal simply was fatigued from the rigors of starting 10 of the previous 11 games.
Saal has started 15 of Augusta's 21 games, and his 2.33 goals-against average and .931 save percentage put him among the ECHL's elite.
"Saalzy's obviously our No. 1 guy, but we believe in Hammer," said Drulia, adding the rookie would also get the start today on the road against Florence. "I thought he played OK tonight."
On most nights, Hamerlik's effort might have been good enough.
The Boston Bruins prospect turned in a serviceable 34-save performance, including 19 stops in the second period.
But the Lynx were outshot 38-29 and ran into one of the top young goalies in the league in Garnett, who posted his second shutout and improved to 13-4-1.
"I thought we dominated the first period but we didn't bear down on our chances," Drulia said. "We had plenty of chances, and it was a tribute to our guys to come out like they did at the start. But Garnett has been unbelievable for them."
But with Saal watching from the runway, the Lynx fell to 10-9-2 and lost even more ground to Gwinnett (17-6-3) in the Central Division race. Including two preseason wins, the Gladiators are 5-0-0 against the Lynx this season.
"We're a much different team than we were two weeks ago," Drulia said, alluding to the call-ups of leading scorer Scott Kelman, Matt Dzieduszycki and Robert Liscak to the American Hockey League. "We just have to keep working hard to get through this."
NOTES: Assistant captain Ken Tasker, one of the most popular players in team history, was released Saturday. Drulia made the move to clear a roster spot for forward Jack Baker, who was activated from injured reserve. ... Forward Josh Bennett was scratched because of an undisclosed injury. ... Rookie winger Scott Corbett, who left the game with a shoulder injury in the first period, said he expects to play today at Florence.
LYNX GAME REPORT
Gladiators 4, Lynx 0
STAR OF THE GAME: Gladiators rookie Phil Lewandowski scored two goals and added an assist.
TURNING POINT: After a scoreless first period, Lewandowski and Jim Jackson scored goals in a span of 3:41 of the second to give the Gladiators a 2-0 lead.
MINUS: The Lynx went 11:15 of the second period without a shot-on-goal.
MINUS: Rookie forward Scott Corbett left the game with a wrist injury in the first period and did not return.
TODAY'S GAME: Lynx at Florence Pride, 3:35 p.m.