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Defensive breakdowns spell the end for Gladiators

DULUTH — So much for progress.

The Gwinnett Gladiators reverted to the form that got a number of players traded and were run over by the Charlotte Checkers 5-1 on Friday in Duluth.

INSTANT REPLAY

<B>Checkers 5, Gladiators 1</B>

What happened: After Gwinnett took a 1-0 lead on a goal by Tim Miller late in the first period, it was all Charlotte. The Checkers tied it in the second and then buried the Gladiators with a four-goal third period.

Not so fast: The Gladiators, short-handed due to injuries, were expecting to get Tom Zanoski back from AHL Lake Erie in time for Friday's game. The Monsters had agreed to return the talented power forward when Gwinnett expressed a need for reinforcements. Zanoski was on the plane bound for Atlanta when he got a call from Lake Erie. A player was injured in pre-game skate and they needed him. So Zanoski won't be back. Although whether he could have even gotten into Hartsfield-Jackson would have been questionable with the snow.

Short-handed: Without captain Adam Berti and fellow forward Jason Lawrence in the lineup, the Gladiators had just 16 skaters in the lineup. They did get rookie Mike Forney back after the young forward missed the last two games, but still had to press another defenseman, Jamie Fritsch, into service on the front lines. Chad Denny was already playing up.

Good Knight: Gwinnett is wearing special jerseys honoring the Atlanta Knights this weekend as part of its "Pink in the Rink" event. Tonight's game will also include Rick Morgan reprising his role as the Knights' national anthem singer. The jerseys will be auctioned off after Sunday's game and proceeds benefit cancer research. In an interesting quirk of scheduling, Charlotte head coach Derek Wilkinson was a goalie for the Knights during his playing career.

Ticket exchange: Anyone who had tickets but chose not to attend Friday's game because of the weather can exchange them for seats either tonight, Sunday or Feb. 21. The exchange must be done at the Gladiators' main office at the Gwinnett Center. The office opens at 10 a.m. today.

On deck: The Checkers and Gladiators meet again tonight at 7:05 p.m. at the Arena at Gwinnett Center. The Gladiators round out a stretch of three games in 48 hours with a matinee matchup against Florida at 4:05 p.m. on Sunday.

The weather kept most fans away and they likely wouldn't have wanted to witness this anyway.

It certainly enraged head coach Jeff Pyle, who had been very pleased with his team's play over the last seven games. All the compliments of the last week dissolved in the face of incalculable defensive mistakes.

"It was just stupid," Pyle bit out. "Just (expletive) stupid."

Pyle who doesn't often single out individuals for criticism was livid over the play of the centers.

"Our centermen — (Scott) Mifsud, (Mike) McLean and (Matt) Francis — defensively were horrible," Pyle said. "They're supposed to cover for everybody. They were the worst defensive guys I've seen this year from that standpoint of not being able to cover for the other guys. Horrible leadership."

The game was tied 1-1 after two periods before Charlotte capitalized on a myriad of Gladiator gaffes.

"The first period, I thought we were OK," Pyle said. "Didn't play great, but I still thought we were OK. After having a day off and travel (from Florida on Thursday), I'm thinking, OK, 1-0, we're good. Then in the second period we start getting sloppy."

After a sluggish start on both ends of the ice, Gwinnett got the only goal of the first period. Tim Miller swept behind the net to tuck a wrap-around just inside the left post. Goalie Ryan Munce got his skate there just a fraction of a second late at 15:33 and the Gladiators took the 1-0 lead into intermission despite being outshot 12-5.

The disparate 2:1 shot ratio held in the second period. The lead did not.

Gwinnett goalie Danny Taylor continued to come under fire and continued to make save after save. But there was little he could do when Matt Schepke whacked a rebounding puck out of mid-air and into the net at 14:18.

Less than two minutes later, Taylor made a huge save to keep the game tied 1-1.

Schepke strode in all alone on a breakaway so grievous it looked like a penalty shot. Schepke tried a toe-drag through the slot and Taylor hung with him, getting to the far post before the puck.

"We got our pocket picked like four times in situations where you have to know guys are coming," Pyle said.

Another defensive breakdown allowed the Checkers to take a 2-1 lead at 8:04 of the third period.

Taylor flicked a rebound into the high slot where Steve Ward had been left unattended. It was an easy put-back for Ward at 8:04.

"We were playing shinney out there," Pyle said. "We had our forwards playing shinney hockey and our ‘D' kind of got dragged into it. That's the same (crap) that got guys traded. Just stupid."

It only got worse for Gwinnett over the next three minutes.

Talented forward Chris Higgins was tackled as he cut to the net and rammed into the end boards. Not only was there no penalty called, neither was there a whistle to stop play.

Higgins dragged himself off the ice with play in the Gladiators' zone and skated, bent at the waist, to the bench clutching his arm. He headed straight to the locker room. He came back at the very end, but by then, Charlotte had buried Gwinnett with three more goals. Two of those were by Ryan Crane, at 11:00 and 13:52.

The final score, be it 5-1 or 2-1, was immaterial to Pyle.

"We've got defenseman getting caught turning pucks over in a 1-1 game in the third period?" Pyle said. "That's just stupid. Playing seven games in 10 days, I'm over the red (line) and deep every time. It's just common sense. Common. Sense. And we didn't have it in that room on that night.

"Just stupid. Just plain stupid. That was embarrassing to me."

With two more games in the next two days and no one expected to be assigned from the AHL, there isn't much Pyle can do about the lineup itself. He'll just have to rely on the players to regroup in time for tonight's rematch with the Checkers.

"I just hope that they remember what happened," Pyle said. "Because today we just played plain stupid."