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Gladiators hope to rebound in February

DULUTH - January has been a less than spectacular month for the Gwinnett Gladiators. Nowhere near as bad as one really horrific January four years ago, but 6-5-1 isn't an overwhelming statement.

Of course, the year the Gladiators suffered through a 2-7-1 January, they rebounded with an excellent February and made it all the way to the conference finals in the playoffs.

The big factor in that season's swoon was the departure of Kevin Doell to the American Hockey League. Gwinnett, which plays in South Carolina tonight, has sustained some similar losses at the start of 2008.

Captain Mike Vigilante remains on the road to recovery after a concussion he sustained in December. Rookie forward Matt Anderson is dealing with the same injury. Derek Nesbitt isn't expected back from AHL Rockford and top scorer Lou Dickenson was just called up to AHL Manitoba. That's a combined 48 goals missing from the lineup.

But don't fret yet.

Vigilante could be back in a week or so and last year's ECHL MVP Brad Schell is nearly ready to play after a back injury wiped out the first half of his season.

Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle also said that Dirk Southern, who needed surgery to repair a damaged knee at the end of December, is recovering well. Southern might yet be able to play this season.

"If all of a sudden he comes back into the picture, that gives me a lot more depth down the line," Pyle said. "I hate to say this, but all I'm doing is looking to make the playoffs right now. We can't control injuries. We can't control callups."

Making the playoffs shouldn't be an issue. In the ECHL South Division, eight of the nine teams will. In fact, of the 25 teams in the league, only four won't make the postseason.

The Gladiators, with a 25-12-4 record and 54 points, would have to tank in unheard-of fashion to fall into the basement of the division. Pensacola is ninth in the South with 20 points.

"You want to put that (securing a playoff spot) behind you because it's such a great feeling once you know you're in," Pyle said.

Gwinnett is third in the division standings, two points behind South Carolina and two points ahead of Florida.

The Stingrays and Gladiators play a pivotal pair of games this weekend. Gwinnett is in Charleston, S.C., tonight and the teams play in Duluth on Saturday.

"Everyone's excited that we have two games with South Carolina, who we're battling with for second," said rookie forward Stuart MacRae, who's been playing well of late after missing a month starting in mid-November with a hand injury. "I think both games are going to be pretty intense and it should be a good test for everyone.

"With a big home-and-home, if we can get four points, that would be a huge boost for us in the standings and for our confidence as a team."

After Dickenson's callup, Pyle juggled his lines once again. He's moving defensemen Jamie Milam and Chad Denny to forward. Milam will be on the top line with the team's leading point getter Jeff Campbell and Andy Brandt.

Mike Hamilton is centering the second line with MacRae and Tomas Pospisil on the wings.

The third line is Denny with Bryson Busniuk and Myles Stoesz.

Pyle will go with five defensemen until he gets a forward back, either off injured reserve or a possible assignment from AHL affiliate Chicago.

"I don't think we have to play differently (with the changing lineup)," Pyle said. "Everybody can score. We've had opportunities. It's a matter of going to the net hard, finding rebounds and shooting the puck when you have the opportunity. That's what scores goals.

"It helps when you have those other guys here, but most of them scored because the amount of pucks they were putting to the net. Nezzie shot all the time. So other guys are going to have to step into those roles."

SideBar: Hockey

When: Gladiators vs. Stingrays

Schedule:

· Today at S. Carolina, 7:05 p.m.

· Saturday at Gwinnett, 7:35 p.m.