DULUTH - Games 1 and 2 of the American Conference finals could have gone either way.
It turned out to be a split and now the Gwinnett Gladiators need at least one win in their three games at the Toledo Sports Arena to bring the best-of-seven series back home.
But they go without Joel Stepp, who had surgery on Monday night to remove a spleen ruptured by a hit in the second period of Game 2. The centerman, contracted by the Atlanta Thrashers, is in stable condition and will remain in the hospital for the next several days.
"You have to expect you're going to lose somebody, somehow," Gwinnett head coach Jeff Pyle said. "But you hate to have it happen."
Stepp was coming up the left-wing boards and collided with one of Toledo's players. He skated gingerly to the bench and sat there, hunched over to talk to athletic trainer Megan Guthrie. Stepp was taken out of the rink a few minutes later and then to Gwinnett Medical Center.
During that time, his teammates found the jump they were missing all night and tied the game with two goals the third period only to lose in overtime.
"To me, I think this is exactly what we need," Pyle said. "This team never learns. It never does anything easy. It never has. It never will.
"I've always said you've got to earn it. This is what makes good teams great. You find a way to win. You go in there and you try to win one (game) at some point. If you get one, then maybe you have an opportunity to go after two. But bottom line, if we don't win one on the road, we have no business being in the finals."
The Gladiators go to Toledo having never lost three straight games in the regular season. They dropped back-to-back games only twice and one time that was consecutive shootout losses to Florida.
"And even if we win one on the road, we still have to show up better at home," Pyle said. "We've shown spurts of what we can do, but we've got to have everybody doing what they can.
"I told them those type of (mental) mistakes would kill us in the playoffs and they are."
Gwinnett is not in unfamiliar waters. The Gladiators lost Game 2 of the division finals to Florida and then won two straight on the road to eliminate the Everblades.
"It's a seven-game series," Pyle said. "We'll see what happens when there's a little more urgency, when we need to win on the road. It'll be interesting to see how we react.
"Maybe this is the test we have to have. But if you look at both games, we could have won them both, we could have lost them both. We're not playing our best and still had a sniff. Third periods have been good in both games, but we can't just wait for the third period and the all of a sudden care."
With the season-ending injury to Stepp, Pyle is moving defenseman Steve Slaton up to more of a swing position and putting Lane Manson back in the lineup. The big blueliner - Manson is nearly 7-feet tall in skates - should be very effective in Toledo's small rink.
"It doesn't matter what kind of a lineup you have - if it's not a smart lineup, you're not going to win," Pyle said. "You can have the toughest lineup in the world, you can have the dumbest lineup in the world: if everybody does their job, we're fine. But when we're not, it doesn't matter who's in the lineup.
"I don't think it's a matter of bodies right now. I think it's a matter of being more committed and we're not. We don't have enough guys that care enough and when that starts happening, things will change. They care enough at times, but not enough to as a whole when it comes right down to it."