Ever since they split their opening series to start the season three months ago, the Salt Lake Golden Eagles and San Diego Gulls have been mirror images of one another.

Going into Saturday night's duel at the Salt Palace the Eagles and Gulls were 3-3 in their season series with 18 goals apiece. They also had nearly identical season records with Salt Lake only slightly better at 19-17-3 to San Diego's 17-17-4.They played about as even as possible again Saturday with Salt Lake eking out a 3-2 decision that went to the final seconds. The largest crowd of the season, 8,968, watched the crowd-pleasing contest.

It was an important game for the Eagles who were coming off a three-game, weeklong road trip and playing their nearest rivals in the IHL West standings.

"It was the difference between being up by one point or five points in the standings," said Eagle Coach Bob Francis, whose team now has 43 points to San Diego's 38. "Our players realized how important the game was and had to utilize every effort tonight."

And that was no easy task considering the Eagles' previous 24 hours.

After losing an overtime game in Peoria Friday night, the Eagle entourage received a 4:30 a.m. (that's 2:30 Salt Lake time) wakeup call for a 6 a.m. flight. Bad weather delayed the flight, so the team missed its connection in Denver and had to wait several hours. Finally they were ferried onto three different flights and arrived home around 3 p.m., just in time to unpack and get ready for Saturday's game.

"We had a long day today - the guys were definitely tired," said Francis. "We came out tentative, but got better as the game went along. We reached deep in the well because the gas tank was running low."

Former Eagle Charlie Simmer started the scoring with a goal at the 6:55 mark. Less than a minute later, Salt Lake tied it when Todd Harkins hit Paul Kruse with a crossing pass just in front of the goal.

Five minutes later it was Harkins' turn as Bryan Deasley fed him with a nice pass across the crease with Kruse assisting.

The Gulls tied it when Darren Lowe tipped in a long shot by Derek Mayer when San Diego had a two-man advantage.

The game-winner came at the midway point of the contest when Marc Bureau fed Rich Chernomaz from behind the net and Chernomaz smacked it home from 12 feet.

After that, each team had several chances, but both goaltenders, the Eagles' Steve Guenettte (31 saves) and the Gulls Scott Brower (32 saves), came up with some nice stops.

"Tonight was another typical Salt Lake-San Diego game," said San Diego Coach Mike O'Connell. "It could have gone either way. Every time we play Salt Lake, it's a good game."

The Eagles have a day to rest up before a starting a brutal four-games-in-five-nights stretch Monday. They play Fort Wayne at home Monday and Wednesday, go to Phoenix Thursday and play - guess who - San Diego Friday in San Diego.