At halfway mark, Gladiators on pace to score 100 points

DULUTH - Halfway through the season, the Gwinnett Gladiators are second in the division standings with 53 points.

Head coach Jeff Pyle has a dream about hitting 100.

In franchise history, incarnated as Mobile and Gwinnett, this is a benchmark the organization hasn't reached before. It's the domain of only a select few teams in the ECHL's last 17 seasons. Nine teams have collected 100 points or more and the all-time record is 116 by Louisiana in 2001-02.

In 2003-04, their first year here, the Gladiators set a new franchise record for points with 92 and went on to make the conference finals.

But at this season's midway point, having avoided its traditional January swoon, Gwinnett is on pace to surpass even that.

With Pyle and three of his players in Fresno, Calif., for the ECHL All-Star Game today, it's time for a midseason report card.

Starting where it's said championships are won - defense - the Gladiators are loaded with talent. Only the occasional misfire of synapses mars the way this defensive corps plays.

Pyle likes to refer to them as "pizzas up the middle." The translation of that is pretty simple - it's those inadvisable passes from deep in the defensive zone that are floated through the center of the ice. Easy pickings for the opposition's forwards and routinely turned into breakaway scoring opportunities.

"When we play to our strengths, we're a very good team. When we don't, we're not," Pyle said. "The focus from one night to the next has got to be more consistent as a whole. And that comes back to me because obviously I'm not getting the point across to some guys.

"We've been good, but it's not good enough for a championship."

Comparatively, this defensive unit is significantly stronger and more experienced that the previous two years.

In their last home game the Gladiators limited Columbia to 13 shots on goal. That was in front of NHL veteran goalie Mike Dunham, on a conditioning assignment from the Thrashers, but he was warned by Pyle that when the defensive breakdown comes, it'll be a doozy.

Since the pizza up the middle is still on the table, Gwinnett needs a goalie that can make the big save.

Sean Fields has played most of this year's games for the Gladiators and is among the league leaders in wins. Fields was returned Tuesday from his first American Hockey League callup and will share the net with another recent assignment, Tuomas Tarkki.

It's the same two goalies Pyle started the season with.

Tarkki, recruited by Pyle out of Northern Michigan University, was signed by Chicago of the AHL when groin injuries decimated its NHL affiliate Atlanta's goaltender ranks.

Fields has been nearly unflappable this season, in diametric opposition to the netminder stereotype. Justifiably or not, goalies are often considered twitchy head-cases with more superstitions and idiosyncrasies than Jack Nicholson's Melvin Udall.

But Fields doesn't get rattled by a goal - or two. He just sweeps the puck out of the net and gets ready for the next shot.

Besides, with the ECHL's best offense, he rarely has to wait long for the Gladiators to get it back.

Gwinnett leads the league in goals and shots per game, all with lines that have been changed and changed again over regular callups.

Earlier in the season, the team's leading scorers (Chris Durno and Scott Kelman) left within a week of each other. Pyle put Pascal Pelletier with Guillaume Desbiens and Jeff Campbell.

The success was such that Pelletier was soon gone, taken by Portland of the AHL. Desbiens and Campbell are both playing in the All-Star Game today (Campbell as a substitute for Pelletier).

Providence sent rookie Milan Gajic to spell for Pelletier and he has been impressive from the get-go.

When Brad Schell was called up to Chicago, Pyle moved defenseman Matt York to forward and his efforts on a checking line with Adam Smyth and Cam Brown have been sterling.

Pyle jokes about being a genius when it comes to setting lines, but the way Gwinnett is capable of playing is no laughing matter.

As Pyle has said so many times this season, the Gladiators can be crushingly dominant. Or they can give games away in the blink of an eye.

"These guys will get away from the things that make them good," Pyle said. "Which again, is kind of mind-boggling.

"We don't serve up the pizzas and you're looking at a hundred-point season."

So the keyword for the second half of the season, children, is consistency.