DULUTH — The battles were in close quarters and not without some saltiness.
The schedule allowed for the Gwinnett Gladiators to spend most of a practice day working one-on-one.
Teammates didn’t hold back against each other, fighting hard for possession of pucks. But the smiles were back as soon as the drill ended and it was clear the team was enjoying the competition.
“That’s stuff that you’d like to do by late November, maybe into December,” head coach Rick Emmett said. “I think that’s what we lacked in November. The guys enjoy it. It’s good energy, gets the compete level up and it’s definitely more geared because our schedule will allow for it now when we have a few days to recover from it.”
The Gladiators are coming off three games in four days with Evansville, the last a 3-1 loss Sunday. It was the least successful outing against the IceMen and former head coach Jeff Pyle. Gwinnett won the first game on Thanksgiving and rallied to force overtime in the second, only to fall in a shootout.
“The message is, ‘Stick with the process,’” Emmett said. “I think we did that in Thursday’s game. Friday we did that. I thought we deserved a better outcome, but we ended up tying it because we stuck with the process. We stayed consistently true to what the gameplan was. We started that way on Sunday and then we lost track of it in the second period and derailed a little bit.”
The Gladiators’ December schedule is surprisingly light with no three-game sets and little travel. Kalamazoo is here for a game tonight and the only other game of the week is Sunday in Greenville.
“Especially coming off November, it’s good,” Emmett said. “It’s going to allow us to get some things squared away system-wise.”
The extremely youthful team has had a difficult time stringing wins together this season. Injuries had taken a toll, as always. Talented playmakers Dirk Southern and Alex Belzile have been on the longterm IR. Southern is eligible to come off Monday, but Belzile has longer before he’s ready to return. Defenseman Justin Weller is certainly out for this weekend after his finger was caught between two sticks and exploded out. Philippe Halley and Martin Lefebvre are day-to-day as well. But Emmett has seen the growth in the team as a whole and a number of players specifically, including Josh Currie and Kurtis Bartliff.
“These are guys that are making continual strides, building at a good pace,” Emmett said. “Then we’ve had some spurts, which you expect from some first-year guys.
“We just need more consistency with our detail. We’re able, we’ve just got to be able to do it for a full game. We’ve gotten better at that.”