DULUTH - Joel Stepp laughed with real enthusiasm when he was asked how long it was between hat tricks.
The Gwinnett Gladiators forward scored three goals in Wednesday's opener of the South Division finals against Florida. Stepp wasn't even really sure when the last time was.
"Uh, heh, it's been a while," the 6-foot center said still chuckling. "Maybe bantams?"
For those not familiar with the divisions of youth hockey, that's for players around 14 years old. So almost a decade ago for Stepp.
Which makes it a pretty big deal, especially when it comes in Game 1 of a best-of-five playoff series. Game 2 is set for 7:35 tonight at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
"It starts us off good, but we've got to come out (today) again and play our best," Stepp said. "Hopefully we can get two, because splitting going back into Florida ... Florida plays great in their barn so it'd be great to go down there up 2-0."
Stepp was assigned to the Gladiators by their NHL affiliate in Atlanta at the end of February. The Thrashers acquired Stepp in a trade with Anaheim for goalie Jani Hurme and sent the 23-year-old to Gwinnett.
"I was actually pretty happy when I found out that I got traded to an organization like this," Stepp said. "(The Gladiators were) in first place and it's just a great group of guys here. When I first got here everybody welcomed me with open arms and it's been great ever since."
Despite having some new systems to learn, Stepp made an immediate impact. He scored two goals in his first game with the Gladiators, a win over Columbia.
Stepp, who played nearly all of his first two pro seasons with Cincinnati of the AHL, scored one more goal in the final 15 regular-season games and was held to a single assist in Gwinnett's first playoff series, a sweep of South Carolina.
But he came up big on Wednesday and further illustrated the Gladiators' offensive potency.
"He's been great since we got him," Gwinnett head coach Jeff Pyle said. "He works hard. He's physical. He's just got a solid all-around game.
"He plays with (Cam) Brown and (Matt) York and they play the same type of game. He's a physical guy and when that line is out there banging, they're going to create some opportunities because people are looking over their shoulder."
Stepp was drafted by Anaheim out of the major junior Western Hockey League in 2001 and spent all of his rookie season (2003-04) with Cincinnati. Last year the Saskatchewan native played 63 games for Cincy and 12 for ECHL San Diego. His point total was under 20 for both seasons.
Then he collected 39 points in 38 games for Augusta this season and was in AHL Portland for 17 games before being acquired by the Atlanta organization.
"It was good to get traded here, a fresh start," Stepp said. "There I was just trying to play the role they wanted me to on a checking line playing against the top lines. You know, go out there and try to get a spark by hitting somebody or just playing the whole shift in their end."
Which is also the job has Pyle asked him to do recently.
"Coach pulled me in before playoff and was like, 'I want you to be a checking forward,'" Stepp said. "Which is fine with me. I don't mind playing that role. Somebody's got to do it and if it helps the team win, that's fine by me. I happened to get three goals (Wednesday), but I could care less if the rest of the team scores (all the goals), as long as we win."