Young Gladiators being graded on tough curve

DULUTH — It’s a rare day when the Gwinnett Gladiators get booed in their own arena.

But the team has also rarely had such a tough start to the season. It’s power play, perennially among the league’s best in eight-year reign of head coach Jeff Pyle, slipped somewhat in the last two years with John Wroblewski at the helm. But the team was still earning points.

Now under head coach Rick Emmett, the power play ranks second-to-last in the ECHL and the team is struggling to win games.

That confluence of events led to the crowd’s vociferous displeasure last Saturday. Perhaps the last time that happened was during a horrible stretch of the 2008-09 season when the Gladiators went 2-9-0 from Dec. 10 to Jan. 2. It might be worth pointing out that team did make the playoffs.

But Emmett still understands the reaction.

“Oh, certainly,” Emmett said. “Everybody’s frustrated. It’s not like anyone in this locker room, behind these walls and doors, doesn’t care. Everybody is trying to do their best and compete.

“Power play is a cohesion thing and we’ve got a lot of guys who haven’t played together. Not to make excuses, but there are certainly some things we weren’t getting done that have been addressed.”

Emmett saw improvement — and a win — during Monday night’s game in Greenville. The Gladiators got two goals from Evan Bloodoff and held off the Road Warriors for a 3-1 victory.

“We were 0-for-4 again, but we controlled the power plays rather than chasing the puck around,” Emmett said. “We’ll build off that and go from there.

“It’s not lack of effort, lack of wanting. I’m sure it gets to a point where guys just want to do better and grip their sticks a little tighter than they usually would.”

There were very few returning players in Gwinnett this season and it’s an extremely young team — the average age is 23 — with 11 rookies.

“But you don’t expect to go 0-for-9 (as they did Saturday),” Emmett said. “That’s not acceptable. At the same time, if you’re looking for reasons on why it’s not working, you start there.”

Despite the difficulties, the Gladiators are just a few wins away from jumping to the middle of the pack in the league standings. Things look a little grim when it’s boiled down to division standings with Florida and South Carolina ripping it up. The Stingrays are the class of the league right now with 20 of a possible 22 points under their belt. Florida is right behind with 18 points and plays in Gwinnett today and Friday.

“Certainly there’s a lot of season left and we’ve got a lot of growing to do,” Emmett said. “We’ve got to learn to string some wins together against highly talented teams. That’s what our division is, and the league, really. We’ve just got to continue to grow and getting better.”

It’s not as if the Gladiators are losing by much either. The biggest margin of victory has been three goals and that was once. Out of eight losses this season, if you remove empty-net goals from the final, five have been by one goal. And they’ve jumped out to 2-0 leads in three of the losses, twice against the mighty Stingrays, only to see it slip away.

“If you break it down, we had a chance to win (all three games against South Carolina),” Emmett said. “We’re competitive, it’s just those little things that become huge at the end where we’re not getting that two points. We’ve got to find a way.

“That’s part of the maturation process with this group — playing with leads and keeping leads.”

Note: The Gladiators acquired forward Mike Embach from Cincinnati on Wednesday in exchange for future considerations. Embach has two assists in five games for the Cyclones this season. Last year he scored 18 goals and added 16 assists in 55 games with Cincinnati. The 25-year-old stepped up for the Cyclones in the playoffs during their run to the Eastern Conference final, leading the team in points with 17 in 17 games. Embach scored three game-winning goals in the postseason, including the deciding goal in Game 6 of the semifinals against Gwinnett.