DULUTH - Craig Kowalski was a major player in the Florida Everblades' success for the last three years.
Today, the often spectacular and always trusty goaltender faces his old team for the first time.
Kowalski, signed as a free agent by the Gwinnett Gladiators this summer, will start between the pipes today when Florida comes to the Arena at Gwinnett Center. While under contract to the Carolina Hurricanes, the 26-year-old was assigned to the Everblades for the majority of his first three professional seasons.
"It should be fun," Kowalski said. "I still know a few guys over there and have a couple of really good friends over there, so it'll be weird playing against them. But it's doesn't matter if we're playing them or we're playing whoever - we still need to come out with two wins this weekend. Especially after last weekend, we need to win these games to get back up in the standings."
Gwinnett (12-5-1, 25 points) is coming off a disappointing 1-2-0 trip to Texas. The Gladiators lost the first two games by one goal each, but rebounded with a confidence-building comeback and a shootout win in the finale.
"I think we played really well except for a couple small stretches in the first two games and that's what cost us," Kowalski said of the trifecta of games in Beaumont last week. "We had leads in both games. We've got to learn how to keep those.
"They're all one-goal games, they were all tight games and you hate to lose those, especially to that team. But, you know, I'd rather lose them early (in the season) than late. Hopefully we can learn from our mistakes and beat them when it counts."
Texas leads the ECHL South Division with 32 points and a 14-2-4 record. Florida is tied for second with Augusta. Each have 26 points. All three teams above Gwinnett have played more games, as many as three for Augusta.
The Gladiators host Florida today and Friday, then have three days off before Augusta comes to the Gwinnett Arena on Tuesday.
"It is early, but these games are important," Kowalski said. "Last year, there was a three-way race for first place and it came down to the last week of the season. I don't see it being any different this year.
"So these games are important and we need to win them."
Florida, a perennial power in the league, is coming off a three-game sweep of Alaska. The Everblades were led in that series by another strong goaltender assigned by Carolina.
Justin Peters was in net for all three wins over Alaska - posting a .959 save percentage - and Wednesday was named the ECHL's goalie of the week.
Both Kowalski and Peters rank among the league's top 10 goaltenders and games between these two teams have always been first rate.
"They always are (good games)," Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle said. "I don't see it being any different.
"I like our team. We just need to want to win more and be smart enough to win. Just to work hard and try isn't enough. I see the will to win, but I don't see the sacrifice and commitment to get there yet. I don't mean from a work ethic standpoint."
The team that started out with a franchise record 9-1-1 mark is 3-4-0 since Nov. 20.
"You lose Jonnie (Awe) and Jimmy (Jackson) and it changes things quite drastically," Pyle said of his two top defensemen who were called up to the AHL and injured, respectively. "We got (Jeff Campbell) back, which helps, but we still have a lot of young kids playing on 'D.'
"And when you're short, you start riding your horses and then they get a little tired. It's the same team. We're playing better teams. We've still had an opportunity to win every game. But now you've got to do better. You can't make those mistakes you made against Pensacola and Mississippi."
The Gladiators will again have the services of big Chad Denny, an Atlanta Thrashers prospect who was sidelined with a concussion last week. Two other players, Stuart MacRae and Jackson, remain out with injuries.
SideBar: EVERBLADES AT GLADIATORS
When: Today, 7:05 p.m.
Where: Arena at Gwinnett Center, Duluth
Next: Florida at Gwinnett, Friday, 7:35 p.m.