0

Gladiators set for busy Feb.

DULUTH - Even in a leap year, February is a short month. It probably won't seem like it to the Gwinnett Gladiators.

First is a set of three games in 48 hours at home, starting tonight at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.

Then the Gladiators play seven of their next eight games on the road. They'll leave Monday night - about 24 hours after wrapping up the three-game set here - for Johnstown, Pa. Gwinnett visits historic Cambria County War Memorial, the cozy 4,000-seat arena where "Slapshot" was filmed, on Wednesday.

The Gladiators stop in three more North Division cities in as many days next weekend. They hit Elmira, which handed Gwinnett one of its worst losses of the season in November, Trenton and Reading.

But head coach Jeff Pyle is looking forward to both the home and road stretches.

The ECHL team is expecting good crowds today, Saturday and Sunday as it holds "Pink in the Rink." The Gladiators are skating on pink ice and wearing black jerseys accented with hot pink. The jerseys and pink sticks used for warm-ups all three days will be auctioned off following Sunday's game.

The event is being held to raise money and awareness for women's cancer research. Presale ticket numbers for tonight and Saturday indicated that attendance will be high, especially Saturday. They're anticipating a crowd much like last Saturday, which was over 9,300 and certainly helped fuel the Gladiators' 7-3 victory over division rival South Carolina.

"It brings a ton of energy," Pyle said of the fans' involvement.

"I told the guys, if we work hard in our systems, I'll live with it. But I just want the energy, I want the effort."

Gwinnett continues to struggle with maintaining a full roster. Call-ups and injuries have kept the lineup in a constant state of flux.

The most recent loss was defenseman Jim Jackson, who was called up by Manitoba on Wednesday. That forced Pyle to moved Jamie Milam back to defense and add Alex Sawruk as the 10th forward. Fortunately, Sawruk was in the area and available to fill in.

Pyle was also sweating whether or not Matt Anderson would be ready to play. Anderson has missed the last four games with a concussion, but is expected to return tonight against Wheeling. Today will also mark the debut of Brad Schell. Last year's ECHL MVP is coming off a back injury that has sidelined him since training camp.

"I'm not going to overplay (Schell) or Matty," Pyle said. "Hopefully it's a smart game, so it shouldn't be too bad."

Pyle also said captain Mike Vigilante could see some ice time this weekend. Vigilante has had a slow recovery from a concussion.

"I would like, one time, to get healthy to see what kind of a team we are," Pyle said. "I don't even know any more. I know we have a lot of potential. We've shown that. But we haven't had any kind of consistent lineup to show consistent potential.

"It's just frustrating."

Pyle is hoping to have everyone healthy and perhaps Jackson or Lou Dickenson back from the AHL before the team heads north.

"It could be good," Pyle said. "We need to get some guys back. If we can get everybody on the road trip here together and then say, "OK, we've got this many games left now, this is it, the countdown.' Because that's what you're looking at."

The Gladiators (26-13-4) remain in third place in the South Division, four points ahead of Florida and Augusta.

Wheeling, Gwinnett's dancing partner for tonight and Saturday, is seventh in the North Division with a 14-27-5 record. The Nailers are down to five defensemen and were outshot a staggering 55-23 by Augusta on Wednesday. Still, the Lynx only won 3-2.

Columbia is here Sunday for February's second to last home game. The Gladiators' only other home game this month is against Augusta on Feb. 24.

SideBar: Home Stand

· What: Gladiators host Wheeling, Columbia

· When: Today-Sunday

· Schedule:

· Today vs. Wheeling, 7:35 p.m.

· Saturday vs. Wheeling, 7:35 p.m.

· Sunday vs. Columbia, 4:05 p.m.