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Gladiators get Gajic back, lose Kelman

DULUTH - Rookie forward Milan Gajic was back at practice with the Gwinnett Gladiators on Thursday, the same day another forward, Scott Kelman, was called up to the American Hockey League.

Gajic was reassigned after playing four games for the Providence Bruins, to whom he is contracted. Gajic has just one assist in 17 games with Providence, but has lit it up at the ECHL level. The University of Michigan product has 43 points in 20 games for the division-leading Gladiators this season. His 20 goals and 23 assists rank him third among Gwinnett rookies and in the league's top 15.

Kelman is making his third trip to the AHL this season - and to his third different team. Lowell asked for the services of the big forward who has 47 points in 46 games with Gwinnett.

Though the two transactions equal each other out in terms of bodies, the Gladiators are getting back closer to full strength. Joel Stepp is on his way to the team after being acquired by the Atlanta Thrashers and assigned to Gwinnett.

"A week ago I'm thinking, 'Do I need to trade a big-name guy to maybe get two guys to survive?'" Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle said. "Because we were getting pretty thin.

"Then all of a sudden you get (Guillaume Desbiens) back. And after Soupy (Jeff Campbell) comes off the suspension, now you've got a fairly full lineup."

Gwinnett (36-11-7, 79 points) clinched a playoff berth with a win Tuesday in Pensacola, but is focused on maintaining its position at the top of the ECHL's South Division. Six teams make the postseason. First and second place earn a bye and home ice.

"It is nice, but it doesn't mean we can sit back and relax," said defenseman Jeff Dwyer, whose plus-minus rating of +20 is second on the team and fourth among ECHL blueliners.

"What we're really fighting for right now is to be first in our entire division, get a bye and get some guys rested up."

The Gladiators, who open a three-in-three set at Columbia tonight, lead Florida by six points and have played two fewer games. Columbia just lost goalie Jani Hurme in the deal that brought Stepp to the Atlanta/Gwinnett system.

After the trip to Columbia, S.C., the Gladiators return for a pair of home games against Pensacola, which sits at the bottom of the division standings.

Still, there are no guaranteed wins in the ECHL. Gwinnett was in control most of the game against the Ice Pilots on Tuesday, but didn't run away with it.

The Gladiators led 3-1 after two periods and Pensacola made it a one-goal margin 6:02 into the third.

"Another cliche, defense wins championships," Dwyer said. "As we've show against Augusta a few games ago, we gave up I don't know how many goals late in the game. We let Florida come back.

"To be a championship team, you've really got to learn how to put your foot on their neck and suffocate them."