With three weeks left in the regular season, the Gwinnett Gladiators are down to the nitty gritty and will have to scrap to avoid missing the playoffs for the first time in six seasons.
The majority of the work will be done on the road. Of the remaining 11 games, only three are at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
The Gladiators left late Monday night for a four-game trip to Ohio. They play two games in Cincinnati and then two in Dayton, with just one day off in between.
But those kind of trips tend to be good for a team because of their insular nature. It's an us-against-the-world mentality that usually yields results. Gwinnett will need that if it's to stay ahead of Mississippi for the ECHL South Division's final playoff spot.
"I think it's going to be a really good trip," said rookie forward Matt Siddall, who scored a hat trick in Sunday's win over league-leading Florida. "When you're on the bus and you're together as a team, you're eating together and you're hanging out and there's a day in between games. It'll be really good to bond and hopefully get a little bit closer right before playoffs."
Because of the midseason demise of Augusta in the South, the rest of the division teams aren't playing an even number of games. So instead of points, winning percentage will be used to determine playoff position.
After a three-game losing streak pushed Gwinnett out of contention, Siddall and the Gladiators got back into the fourth spot with a big 6-3 win over the Everblades.
Siddall had three goals and assisted on the game-winner, scored by former Dayton defenseman Mike Looby early in the third period.
Gwinnett was up 3-1 on two goals by Siddall and another from Dirk Southern when Siddall set up Looby in the crease. Looby, aquired in a trade with Dayton in January, worked across the blue paint to get in position and didn't waste the feed from Siddall.
Florida made it interesting, getting within 4-3, but Siddall capped his first pro hat trick and nixed the comeback bid with a short-handed goal at 13:17 of the third.
"Since Loobs has come in, he's been awesome," Siddall said. "Just a steady and great guy in the room, great guy away from the rink. Everyone loves him and he plays hard every night. He might not show up on the scoresheet, but he does the little things that you need to win as a D man."
Play like his and that of newly signed collegiate blueliner Brandon Gentile will be key on this road swing. Making smart decisions has primarily been the difference between success and failure for the Gladiators this season.
Gentile was added to the roster last Friday and played in a pair of road losses before winning in his home debut with Gwinnett. He came to the Gladiators after four seasons at Michigan State. Head coach Jeff Pyle has a good relationship with Gentile's agent, who also represented former Gwinnett and NHL goalie Adam Munro.
Pyle was extremely positive in his early review of Gentile, a 6-foot, 196-pounder from Clarkston, Mich.
"I love the kid," Pyle said. "He's a great, solid defenseman. Just simple. I feel fortunate that we got him."
The Gladiators go to Cincinnati with 16 skaters, a full lineup after months of being short-handed.
Gwinnett also has three goalies right now with last week's assignment of Joe Fallon from AHL Rockford. Josh Johnson was given some time last week to get healthy after playing with a nagging injury, but is ready to go again. Dan Turple was assigned by NHL Atlanta about a month ago and has played well in his return to Gwinnett.
"I've got to figure out what to do from here," Pyle said.
The Gladiators (27-28-6) haven't played Cincinnati, which leads a ridiculously tight North Division, this season. They have beaten Dayton twice when the Bombers were in Gwinnett back in November.