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Gladiators keep winning despite losses

Photo: Amanda Hertel Gwinnett Gladiators goalie Jeff Jakaitis gets snowed by Florida's Rylan Galiardi in a game last month. Defenseman Will Colbert (4) is in on the play. Both Jakaitis and Colbert have been sidelined with injuries, although Jakaitis' is far more severe. A league-leading goalie, Jakaitis is out for the rest of the season.

Photo: Amanda Hertel Gwinnett Gladiators goalie Jeff Jakaitis gets snowed by Florida's Rylan Galiardi in a game last month. Defenseman Will Colbert (4) is in on the play. Both Jakaitis and Colbert have been sidelined with injuries, although Jakaitis' is far more severe. A league-leading goalie, Jakaitis is out for the rest of the season.

DULUTH -- Goaltender Jeff Jakaitis sat on the chilly metal bleachers at the IceForum in Duluth. His crutches rested nearby.

Forward Scott Fleming was next to Jakaitis.

Defenseman Will Colbert, wearing sweats and a workout shirt, was in the lobby, watching practice through the glass wall.

The Gwinnett Gladiators' walking wounded were there Thursday while the team ran through drills in preparation for tonight's home game against Chicago.

Colbert missed Thursday's game, but hasn't been put on IR.

Fleming hasn't played since Oct. 28 because of a concussion. Jakaitis is out for the rest of the season after Greenville's Brandon Wong rolled over his knee early in the second period of last Saturday's game. The Gladiators' No. 1 goalie had the ECHL's second best save percentage and goals-against average at the time of his injury.

"You obviously can't replace a guy like Jakaitis," said defenseman Brad Miller, who himself was forced to sit out all but two games from Nov. 13 to Dec. 30 due to an injury. "He'd probably be the MVP of the league at the end of the year, but I think the way we've got to look at it is you can't feel sorry for yourself.

"Obviously we'd rather have him out there. But that's the hand you've been dealt and nobody else in the league is saying poor Gwinnett, they lost their best player. That's the way we've got to look at it, too. We've all just got to pick up our games a little more to make up for the loss."

Just a week prior to losing Jakaitis, the Gladiators acquired goalie Joe Palmer because it was clear Marc Cheverie was going to remain in the AHL for some time.

Originally picked up in a trade with Reading for future considerations, Palmer was meant to challenge Jakaitis for minutes. Now, he'll be carrying the load for a team at the top of the conference standings.

Coming in for Jakaitis on Saturday, Palmer only allowed one goal and helped the Gladiators to a shootout victory. He repeated that performance Thursday in a win over Florida.

"I think that's a huge confidence boost to come out and win a couple shootouts right away," Miller said. "Kind of him against the world in the first two games.

"It looks like he hasn't missed a step from where Jakaitis left off."

Gwinnett went out and got goalie Ryan Zapolski from Toledo on Tuesday to back up Palmer. Zapolski had a 2.02 goals-against average in two games for the Walleye. The rookie out of Mercyhurst College also won the only game he played for Kalamazoo this season.

The Gladiators added forward David Brownschidle, the same day Palmer was added, and veteran defenseman Tyler Kindle on Wednesday to bolster the roster.

Both Brownschidle, a rookie out of the Ivy League's Brown University, and Kindle fit the mold for what head coach John Wroblewski has built in his first year in Gwinnett.

"It's part of the game, you have guys go down or get called up," Miller said. "You've got to make some moves to get some guys and obviously coach has a very distinct type of player he's trying to build this team around. I think all of us fit the mold here and it's nothing different with the new guys. They're passionate about the game and they play to win."

The Gladiators have won six straight and are 9-1-1 in their last 11 games. They lead the South Division and Eastern Conference, battling through injuries and callups and the constant fight for first with Greenville and South Carolina. Even Florida, at the bottom of the division, would make the playoffs if the season ended now.

There are no easy wins in the South and the playoff atmosphere of games in January and February benefits Gwinnett down the stretch.

"I think we've been playing great," forward and leading point-getter Nikita Kashirsky said. "The couple last games, Palmer was huge for us and guys responded. We always manage to battle though some tough games.

"I think it's a good thing for us. It just prepares us for the next test. There's no breaks right now. Every game is to win our division or our conference. There's always teams right behind us, just a few points separating us. So it's great to get these games under our belt."