DULUTH — Gwinnett Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle has said from the beginning of the season that this team reminds him of the inaugural one.
It’s definitely mired in a slump like that team slogged through midseason.
GLADIATORS AT ROAD WARRIORS
When: Today, 7:05 p.m.
Where: Greenville, S.C.
• Saturday: South Carolina, 7:05 p.m.
• Sunday: Greenville, 4:05 p.m.
Pyle is confident this team is just as capable of finding its way out of the skid as his 2003-04 squad, which went 2-7-1 in a dismal January only to right the ship and reach the conference finals.
The Gladiators have lost their last five straight and play tonight on the road against league-leading Greenville before returning home for games Saturday and Sunday.
“Right now is Murphy’s Law — what can go wrong, will go wrong,” Pyle said. “But I’m staying positive. I told them, ‘Boys, if you want to be a good team you’ve got to learn through the good times and the bad.’ Right now it’s bad, but we’re not working as hard as we were earlier in the season and we’ve got some holes in the lineup.”
Call-ups and injuries have taken a toll — as they do every year.
Derek Nesbitt, Ryan Garbutt and, as of Wednesday, Michael Davies are all in the AHL.
Matt Francis is out until at least April with a shoulder injury. Tim Filangieri was placed on the seven-day IR but is likely out for several weeks after colliding with a teammate in practice. All-Star defenseman Drew Paris is still recovering from a concussion.
Not to mention all the guys hurt but still playing.
A postponed game against Greenville on Tuesday came at a good time for Gwinnett.
“Right now the timing couldn’t be better,” Pyle said. “That’s kind of what we needed, an extra day to work on some stuff.”
So maybe Murphy’s Law has been broken.
The team certainly has enjoyed some productive and spirited practices this week.
“The last three days of practice, they’re flying,” Pyle said. “I was really interested to see how we played (Tuesday) night, but when it didn’t happen, I thought, ‘OK, let’s keep that preparation going.’
“They realized they’ve got to start working harder and being smarter. We’re missing a lot of guys.”
Pyle said the players themselves acknowledged their effort wasn’t quite the same as it had been over the first two months of the season.
“Early in the season, coming to camp, our team was so solid, we had so many guys where Jeff had to make some tough decisions,” said veteran defenseman Paul Flache, who was part of the 2003-04 team. “Everyone knew they were fighting for a job. Then guys get called up, guys get moved around, guys get hurt and it’s like guys get comfortable in their positions.
“It’s not that we’re not working hard, but it’s not with that same urgency that was there earlier in the season. I think this week’s been a lot better practice.”
Pyle has no complaints about the team’s work ethic. But its defensive-zone coverage hasn’t been as sharp as it was when the Gladiators were leading the ECHL in points.
The offensive production has suffered as well with the depleted lineup.
“Yeah, we’re messing up and there’s some mistakes being made, but with everything going on — I’m not going to use any excuses — it kind of reminds me of the team that first year,” Pyle said. “We went through that stint where we were struggling.
“Granted right now with all the injuries, it’s going to take us a little bit, but we’re playing hard.”
Flache said he talked to the team about going through ups and downs over several seasons with the Gladiators.
“I was here the first year when we went to the conference finals and I think we actually overachieved that year,” Flache said. “The next year I was here (2006-07), I think people had us picked to win early in the season because on paper we were a good team. But we just didn’t get it done. We had a few issues where guys weren’t buying in.
“So I said, ‘I’ve been here, I’ve seen the system works if guys just buy in and play the way we can, the way we have for the first 15 games of the season, we’ll be fine.’”
Even over the course of the five-game losing streak, the team has played well. Just not for the full 60 minutes needed.
“Jeff hasn’t gotten really upset because it’s not like it’s a total meltdown,” Flache said. “But I definitely think this is a much strong, much deeper, much more skilled team than that one the first year.
“We’re all tight here. We all get along really well. Which is a nice thing. And it’s a long season.”