DULUTH - On the last day of February, the Gwinnett Gladiators are in pleasantly unfamiliar territory.
With a road win tonight against last-place Pensacola, the division-leading Gladiators can clinch a playoff berth. It's the earliest opportunity in franchise history and far sooner than either of the past two years.
Their first season in Gwinnett, 2003-04, the Gladiators took it right down to the wire, securing a spot on March 31 - three days before the end of the regular season. Last year was a little better. It was a win in Bakersfield on March 26 that punched their ticket to the Kelly Cup playoffs.
"It's crazy," Gwinnett head coach Jeff Pyle said. "We have 11 losses and there's a handful of games that we kind of gave away.
"The other side of that is we've had a lot of changes. But I still think we can play better."
In the last week alone, the Gladiators have had a half dozen roster changes and still managed to earn six of a possible eight points in four games against the division's No. 2 team, Florida.
Just getting ready for the two games last weekend in Florida, Gwinnett lost Milan Gajic to AHL callup, Jeff Campbell to a suspension and Danny Eberly to injured reserve. The Gladiators did get Guillaume Desbiens back from AHL Chicago and acquired Brian Teixeira from Charlotte.
Desbiens had two goals Saturday and Teixeira got a goal in his first game with Gwinnett on Friday.
"We're fine," Pyle said. "I like what we've got right now. We're going to work hard, but who knows if we're going to get Gajic or somebody else back. I'm not counting on it.
"Tex has done a good job. (Matt) York playing back at 'D' again, (Josh Bennett) doing a great job for us. Everybody's stepping up and doing what they have to do in order for us to be successful."
With nearly six weeks remaining in the regular season, the 35-11-7 Gladiators are in solid position. They are six points ahead of Florida with a game in hand and 32 points ahead of seventh-place Columbia. The top six teams in the division make the playoffs and the top two teams get a first-round bye.
"We've got a good situation," Pyle said. "If we get sharp for the next week or so, we could really put pressure on some teams. Right now our goal has got to be first place.
"Now we've got to refocus. We've got to go into Pensacola knowing this is do or die for them."
After tonight's 8:05 p.m. matchup in Pensacola, the Ice Pilots come to Gwinnett for back-to-back games on Saturday and Sunday.
Back on track
The Gladiators changed things around and got the power play going in Friday's 4-3 shootout loss to the Everblades, snapping their two game drought on the man advantage.
"My job is to adjust and it worked OK," Pyle said.
Florida kept the Gladiators off the board for two consecutive games last week but Gwinnett, which has the top-rated power play in the league, went a combined 3-for-12 in the two games this past weekend against the Everblades.
Adding to the record
Over the weekend, Adam Smyth added 17 minutes to his all-time Gladiators record for most penalty minutes in one season. Smyth now has 242 minutes this season, surpassing Blue Bennefield's mark of 222 minutes set during the Gladiators inaugural 2003-04 season. Smyth, who sometimes steps across the line between gritty and irresponsible, finished last year with 217 minutes in 49 games with the Gladiators.
"Smitty got lucky he didn't get suspended (for a spearing penalty against Florida)," Pyle said. "That's my only question right now, getting the guys to commit and make better decisions.
"Smitty's got a decision to make, he either needs to smarten up or he won't play."
Smyth was fined an undisclosed amount by the league on Monday for the spearing incident.