Gwinnett Gladiators’ Josh Currie (6) fights to keep the puck from Greenville’s Andrew Rowe (9) during their game March 29 at the Arena at Gwinnett Center. (Photo: Amanda Hertel)
DULUTH — It’s a shame the Gwinnett Gladiators don’t play in the Western Conference, because they’re finally a team that could make some noise in the postseason.
The west only has eight teams after San Francisco folded in the middle of the year, so everyone makes the playoffs. But in the east, five teams will be left out in the cold. The Gladiators, despite some excellent play of late, are among them.
So two home games against Elmira, tonight and Saturday, are it for the 2013-14 season — one that saw a staggering amount of turnover in the roster.
“We had so much turnover, it seemed like it was weekly, and it’s hard to build cohesion,” head coach Rick Emmett said. “Now everybody is on the same page.
“Our personnel, too, is definitely better with some of the trades and pickups we’ve made. That’s what the difference is.”
After last weekend’s game against playoff-bound Greenville, Emmett talked with Road Warriors head coach Dean Stork.
“He had a lot of great things, positive things, to say about our group and how far we’ve come,” Emmett said. “So that’s encouraging. And you look at the teams we’ve played lately and it’s teams that have a lot to play for as far as playoffs.
“Greenville wants home ice and they weren’t necessarily even guaranteed to be in the playoffs (two weeks ago). We’re playing nose-to-nose, winning, and dominating at times.”
There are probably a number of upper echelon teams relieved not to see Gwinnett get a chance to show how well this incarnation of the roster can play.
“It’s kind of been the talk around the room,” captain Joey Haddad said. “We have a really good team right now. We have one of the best teams in our division and in our conference. The only problem is we didn’t come together until too late.
“Those years happen in hockey. With injuries, we had 14 goalies in here and probably enough bodies for two or three teams, all the fluctuation makes it tough to build the chemistry.”
The Gladiators played their last four games against a hot Greenville, which has earned a playoff spot and is still fighting for positioning. The home team won each time, but both of Gwinnett’s losses were by just one goal. And the wins were impressive.
“One thing I am proud of is the core group of guys that were here and the guys that joined us later, regardless of the standings, we had a goal,” Haddad said. “And that was to work hard and get better as a team, show some pride and show some sportsmanship, not write it off. Two games left and we’re still going really hard.”
Two trade deadline acquisitions led the way for the Gladiators last Friday night. Mike Merrifield scored twice and Eriks Sevcenko had four primary assists. Gwinnett was down 1-0 before ripping off four unanswered goals en route to a 7-3 victory.
In addition to Merrifield’s two goals, Chris Culligan scored for the second time in his three games with Gwinnett. Signed by the Gladiators on March 26 after a brief three-game stint with the AHL Texas, Culligan has been a catalyst for his new team. The Sydney, Nova Scotia native also looked dynamic playing on the same forward line as Haddad, his childhood friend and former teammate in Cape Breton of the QMJHL.
“It’s tough to fathom, when you’re not in the playoffs, having a successful year,” Haddad said. “But the core group of guys were here all year and together I think we all grew a little more into a team. Then the guys that joined us late were able to fit right into that process.
“If anything we’re trying to set the tone for next year. We want to end strong and pick up where we left off next year.”
Adding to Friday’s offensive outburst were Maxime Legault and Dirk Southern, who both have at least a goal in their last four games.
Southern is one of the few players on the roster who started the season in Gwinnett, but he was in and out of the lineup with injuries all through 2013. The new year has been much better. Southern has missed just three games and has a point in 11 of the last 14 games.
Another productive addition has been Alpharetta native Will MacDonald, who has three goals and six assists in 12 games with the Gladiators. MacDonald joined the team after completing his senior season at Princeton
But the biggest force for good has certainly been goaltender Mark Guggenberger. The stability he’s provided in net since arriving Feb. 28 was something Gwinnett lacked most of the season. The Gladiators had an unheard of 12 goalies play for them this season. A number of them were quality netminders, but injuries and callups prevented Gwinnett from riding any of them for long.
Guggenberger is 9-5 with a .909 save percentage and a 2.94 goals-against average with the Gladiators. His 15 games are the most played by any goalie for Gwinnett this season.
“It’s the most important position,” Emmett said. “There are things certainly we’d do a little bit differently as a staff. But really, if you look back, I don’t think there’s an overhaul of how you’d change things. And not to make excuses, but there was some pretty bad luck as far as that position goes. If you don’t have stability there, it’s really tough. You’re fighting an uphill battle.
“But we’ve had that the last few weeks and you can see the difference.”