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Strong finish has Gladiators looking forward to next season

Gwinnett Gladiators goalie Mark Guggenberger provided stability in net for the team in the final weeks of the season. After a revolving door at the position, Guggenberger came in and won 10 games for Gwinnett. (Photo: Amanda Hertel)

Gwinnett Gladiators goalie Mark Guggenberger provided stability in net for the team in the final weeks of the season. After a revolving door at the position, Guggenberger came in and won 10 games for Gwinnett. (Photo: Amanda Hertel)

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The Gwinnett Gladiators brought in Chris Culligan at the end of the season after he finished his college career at University of New Brunswick at Fredericton. Culligan made waves from the get-go and finished with six points in six games. (Photo: Amanda Hertel)

DULUTH — Thirteen goalies.

Thirteen goalies played in at least one game for the Gwinnett Gladiators this season.

The last, Mark Guggenberger, played more than any other — a whopping 16 games.

But the signing of Guggenberger and several trades near the deadline gave the Gladiators a boost at the end of the season. And a reason to be optimistic about next year despite missing the postseason for just the third time in team history.

“Usually when you finish at the bottom of the league and you don’t make the playoffs, you end the season on a sour note and there’s not a whole lot of positivity,” captain Joey Haddad said. “But I felt like as tough as this season was, if you want to call it rock bottom or no-where-up from here, I felt like that point came earlier in the season. Maybe January, February.”

After winning seven out of 10 games from Dec. 26 to Jan. 11, the playoffs were not an unreasonable possibility for the the perennial contenders. But they had a hard time stringing wins together for the rest of January and then lost six straight from Feb. 8-23.

“Coming into March, that’s when we kind of said, ‘Hey, for ourselves as a team, for a bunch of men playing a game, let’s go out and support each other,’” Haddad said. “We just tried to have a positive mentality and I think that’s what came out in our play. Guys started having fun. Guys started bonding.”

Gwinnett again won seven of 10 games between Feb. 25 and March 17 . Not coincidentally, Guggenberger came on board Feb. 28. He finished with a 10-5 record, a .913 save percentage and a 2.75 goals-against average.

“He was huge for us in the net,” Haddad said. “He gets the guys going. He challenges us in practice. It’s turned into a really healthy atmosphere. It was easy for them to go out and work hard in practice. It was easy for them to go out and work hard in games.

“We battled back and we did what it was in our power to do. I think we can be proud of that.”

The Gladiators were about .500 over the final weeks of the season, but it included several impressive wins — further helping to boost the mood.

They beat division rival, and playoff-bound, Greenville in back-to-back games at home. The first night, Gwinnett stormed back after giving up three goals on the first three shots of the game to score six unanswered and win 6-4. The following night was another offensive show with the Gladiators winning 7-3.

And they closed out the season with a 7-0 walloping of struggling Elmira in front of more than 6,000 fans at the arena.

“We lost a lot of close games this year,” head coach Rick Emmett said. “There haven’t been games where we’ve gone in and it’s been ‘whoa.’ Certainly it was frustrating. Nobody wanted to be in the situation we were in as far as record.

“Do you second-guess at times? Yes. But all in all, we really believed in what we were doing and the message we’re sending. It takes a while to build a culture. It’s taken us a good part of five months to get there. We’re finally there, but out of time.”

It was a far better finish to the season than the start.

Gwinnett only earned points for a shootout win through the first eight games before finally getting a regulation win on Nov. 8. None of those losses were by more than two goals, but it was still enough to leave the team an uphill battle.

“When you start a season like we did, with team success and personal success not being there, it creates a lot more distraction,” Haddad said. “One of our problems this year was our starts. It just wasn’t there most of the year. But the more I think about it, the more I see the distractions that were right in front of us — not having success, being frustrated, no team structure, guys are kind of on their own pages. Just a big mess at the start of the year. I think that’s what really got into our heads.

“When we’d have a 20-minute intermission just to sit down and think about everybody’s own individual game and the team game, it was stressful. It was an uneasy feeling.”

They spent much of the year ironing out problems and finally arrived at a consistently good product. It was just way too late to salvage the season.

“As we got into the new year, we went through enough of that crap that everybody individually just said, ‘I’m going to change the way I’m thinking, I’m going to change the way I’m playing,’” Haddad said. “All together, we started climbing out of the hole. Those are the things you need to focus on.”

When Emmett was hired to replace John Wroblewski last August, he essentially had to build a roster from scratch. There were only a small handful of players returning and no new contracts on the books.

“It’s not ideal,” Emmett said in a vast understatement. “It was our situation. If you had a choice, you wouldn’t do it that way, but we had time to build a team and there’s no excuses about that.

“But certainly going into this offseason, there’s some promise. I like where we are up front and in the pipes.”

Both Emmett and Haddad feel a number of players — those who slogged through the toughest times and several who joined the team down the stretch — are interested in returning.

“You always want to get to the next level, so there will be some players looking for higher levels of hockey,” Haddad said. “There will be some players maybe it will be their last season. For the younger players, I think this is a great spot to start the season.

“I’d like to think there’s a core group of guys here who are thinking along the lines of, ‘I want to give it another shot with these guys.’ We had a couple tough breaks this year. We didn’t get to let our true colors shine and we want another shot at proving to the league and ourselves what we’re capable of. I think there’s a lot to build off of.”