Simple scenario: Gladiators must win

DULUTH - It's not complicated.

Win and the Gwinnett Gladiators keep their playoff berth.

Lose and they open the door for Mississippi to be the South Division's fourth seed.

But then, this is not news. It's been basically the same situation for weeks, nay months, and the Gladiators have managed to stay a hair's breadth ahead of the Sea Wolves.

Because of Augusta's mid season demise, the seeding in the South is being determined by winning percentage instead of points. Gwinnett leads .471 to .464, and it comes down to the last two games for each team.

The Gladiators play at home tonight against the streaking South Carolina Stingrays and finish on the road in Charlotte on Saturday.

Whether they live to see a first-round matchup with the mighty Florida Everblades depends on them. A loss in one or both and the Gladiators have to count on the same results for Mississippi. But if they win, they're in.

"It's got to be individuals taking accountability and responsibility for their actions," veteran forward Dan Sullivan said. "And knowing that one little mistake now can determine the rest of the year for us."

Sullivan knows as well as anyone how painful missing the playoffs can be. He's only played in two postseason games as a pro and that was three years ago with Augusta. He emphasized the importance of not letting goals against or poor calls take them out of a game.

"We need to figure out how to rebound from that and not deflate as much," Sullivan said. "There's going to be goals against, there's going to be bad penalties called, but that is for every team. It's not just against Gwinnett.

"The non-excuse factor for us is going to be the biggest thing. Because you can't make excuses anymore. It's now or never."

Mississippi's final two games are today and Saturday against Florida - a team the Sea Wolves have beaten once all season. Mississippi's record against the Everblades is 1-8-1.

Conspiracy theorists might suggest that Florida would rather play Mississippi in the first round and, thus, aid that situation by losing the last two games.

But frankly the Everblades have nearly as good a record against Gwinnett (only having ceded four wins in a season series of 14) and, more importantly, they're professionals. Florida didn't end up with the Brabham Cup for the league's best regular season record by not caring about wins.

Caring enough is, however, something Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle doubted of his own team after back-to-back losses at Florida this week.

"Our commitment at home has been good and we always seem to bounce back after bad games," Pyle said. "But I question some of the character of some of these guys. They're all good kids, don't get me wrong, I like them all. But you've got to want for the playoffs more than your coach wants for the playoffs and I haven't seen that.

"And it's sad. Because that's what you play for. Some guys are playing like they've got their bags packed already."

Pyle issued one last warning at the end of a quick practice Thursday afternoon. He said players will be fined or miss ice time if they don't do what he asks of them. Defenseman Jean-Claude Sawyer was the first victim of this policy and won't be in today's lineup as a consequence of his actions in Florida.

"It's been simple for a while," Pyle said. "The bottom line is we either get it or we don't. If we don't, we don't deserve it. I blame myself first because I haven't been able to get through to guys. I brought these guys here. I thought I could motivate them enough to make it work and obviously I haven't gotten it done."

They have two games left to change that though.

Note: During the first intermission of today's game, the team will present this year's recipients with funds totaling about $30,000 from the Gladiators Foundation for Kids. The groups receiving grants are: Camp Horizon, Camp Twin Lakes, Dream House, Foster Children's Foundation, Georgia Transplant Foundation, Gwinnett Childrens Shelter, Gwinnett Special Olympics Hockey, Lekotek, North Metro Miracle League, Special Olympics Georgia, Spectrum Autism Support, Joanna McAfee Childhood Cancer Foundation, Grayson High School Deca, Community Foundation for Northeast Georgia, Keep Georgia Safe and Eagle Ranch.