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Gladiators battle 'Blades for first place

DULUTH -- Two of the hottest teams in the ECHL meet for a pair of pivotal games this weekend.

The Gwinnett Gladiators have one regulation loss in their last eight games and sit atop the division standings.

The Florida Everblades are on a six-game winning streak and have climbed within a mere point of the lead in the South.

The only blemish for Gwinnett in its last three weeks of play was a 3-1 loss to the Everblades last Friday. And it was a well-played game despite the final result.

"We executed on a lot of fronts," head coach John Wroblewski said. "We're going against a team that's extremely hot right now. This is a premier matchup."

Included in the Gladiators' recent roll is a league-tying run of three straight shutouts, which were keyed by goalie Jeff Jakaitis. The 28-year-old was named December's goalie of the month Thursday and, like most, was quick to credit the rest of the team for the shutouts.

"The forwards were working the puck down low, keeping the puck at the other end, which takes pressure off the defensemen and off of me," Jakaitis said. "And they're tracking has been great, which means the 'D' can stand up and force turnovers. It's tough to make plays when we're not giving them any space.

"It's the whole team playing well. I just happen to be the guy that gets talked about because of it."

The month didn't start so spectacularly.

Gwinnett salvaged a point in consecutive games in Florida by rallying to force overtime. But coming into a game against the Everblades on Dec. 15, the Gladiators hadn't won a regulation game in six straight outings.

"We started off the month very slow," Wroblewski said. "I think that's gotten lost transition a little bit. If you look back to the weekend we played Greenville and then South Carolina twice at home (Dec. 8-11), we were in a pretty bad spot there."

Then came a chance to play with a full lineup and the addition of forward Igor Gongalsky, a regular AHLer whose rights Wroblewski acquired in a trade before the start of the season.

"It really started with some evaluation process at our own end," Wroblewski said. "That carries over to evaluating our nature and our attitude toward the other teams' net. That was a point where we started to get some energy back. Getting Igor really gave us a boost in our identity coming in, even though it was a brief stay.

"All in all, we got much better defending our own end. Then we evaluated our play at both ends, specifically the 10 feet around the cage, which got much better."

For the showdown with Florida (today at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday at 7 p.m.), Gwinnett will have the services of goalie Marc Cheverie.

He was assigned by AHL Portland on Thursday and Wroblewski said he would probably get a start this weekend.

Also likely to return is highly skilled defenseman Brad Miller, who has played just two games since Nov. 13 due to an injury.