DULUTH — With a new-look roster and 26 games left in the season, the Gwinnett Gladiators didn’t shy away from the importance of this weekend’s games.
The Gladiators still have their sights set on catching division leader Greenville, nine points ahead in the South, with Toledo in town tonight and Saturday.
The Walleye are a few points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with a few games in hand.
The division winners and next five highest in points make the postseason. Gwinnett is in sixth place heading into the doubleheader with Toledo.
“It’s a huge weekend,” Gwinnett head coach Jeff Pyle said. “It’s 12 or 14 hours (riding on the bus), but if they get a lot of snow, it could be 20.”
“That’s what we want,” Pyle said with a grin.
The Gladiators split last week’s games in Kalamazoo, but shot themselves in the foot with bad penalties in the loss last Friday, including an egregious sequence trailing by a goal.
Already on the penalty kill, captain Sam Roberts and alternate captain Paul Flache each cross-checked a Wings’ player within seconds of each other.
That left Gwinnett down two men for four minutes.
“We’ve been playing pretty well actually,” Pyle said. “Our penalties have been brutal. Unnecessary, undisciplined. I’m going to start benching guys. I can’t live with that. It killed us on Friday night. We outplayed them. We dominated 5-on-5.”
The Gladiators, who have made a handful of roster moves in the last week, came back the following night to win handily.
“If we can stay out of the box, I think we’re fine,” Pyle said. “We’ve just got to be disciplined and then our second power-play unit has got to do a better job. The first unit has been great.”
To that end, the team spent a fair amount of time Wednesday and Thursday working on special teams. It was also important since there are some new faces on the team.
Brennan Turner and Dustin Cameron came over in a trade with Elmira, while Akim Aliu was assigned by the Atlanta Thrashers after spending the season in AHL Chicago.
Also back in the lineup are forward Andy Brandt, who returned from AHL Manitoba, and defenseman Tim Filangieri, who has been out since early December with an injury.
“I think it’s a much better lineup,” Pyle said. “We’ve been playing hard every game.
“Right now the key is going to be our self-discipline. The rest of the season, if we can’t stay out of the box, if we can’t commit to systems, then we don’t deserve to make it.”
The team will be without second-leading scorer Tim Miller, who left on a call-up Thursday, but Turner was impressed with the talent level since returning to the team last week and geared up for the games against Toledo.
“I’ve been here only a short time, but the chemistry is pretty good,” said Turner, who played the last half of the 2008-09 season for Gwinnett. “I think Toledo, the position they’re in right now, they might be a little down on confidence so we can really take it to them right off the bat.”
Turner has seen the Walleye several times already this season playing up north and said they have a run-and-gun style.
“I think with our style of play and our speed, we can create some havoc in their zone,” Turner said. “They’ve got some good forwards that can shoot the puck and make some plays. But I think our overall skill set is better so hopefully we can use that to our advantage and come out with four points.”