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Gwinnett Gladiators secure big piece of puzzle with signing of goalie Guggenberger

Gwinnett Gladiators goalie Mark Guggenberger provided stability in net for the team in the final weeks of last season. He has re-signed for 2014-15. (Photo: Amanda Hertel)

Gwinnett Gladiators goalie Mark Guggenberger provided stability in net for the team in the final weeks of last season. He has re-signed for 2014-15. (Photo: Amanda Hertel)

After what the Gwinnett Gladiators went through last season, it’s no wonder they wasted little time locking up goaltender Mark Guggenberger for the 2014-15 season.

Guggenberger was the 12th of 13 goalies to play for the Gladiators last year and ended up collecting more wins than any of the others despite only being here for the final six weeks. His re-signing was announced Saturday and both sides said reaching an agreement wasn’t tough.

“It was a really easy decision for me, personally,” Guggenberger said from his home in the Minneapolis area. “We had a good group of guys last year and I think a good core coming back. It was so nice down there. The fans were great and it’s a first-class organization. There’s was no hesitation for me.”

“I wasn’t too hard of a sell,” he said with a chuckle.

Team president Steve Chapman felt like it was a good situation all the way around.

“Guggs came in and provided a lot of stability,” Chapman said. “And he’s a pretty engaging personally. He fit in here.”

Guggenberger made Gwinnett a dangerous team down the stretch, but because of a rather horrific start to the season, the Gladiators weren’t able to make up enough ground to qualify for playoffs. Still, that finish was encouraging for everyone.

“Talking with just about everyone on the team, we’re all really excited to pick up where we left off,” Guggenberger said.

Guggenberger’s rights were acquired in a deal with Alaska that sent forward Alex Belzile to the Aces. Guggenberger arrived in Gwinnett on Feb. 28 — about three hours before he debuted in net.

“That was pretty crazy,” Guggenberger said. “I flew in at 4 p.m. and came straight to the arena. They asked if I was ready to play and I said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

He and the Gladiators rallied to beat rival Florida 4-2 that night — a blessed sign of things to come. He stopped 44 of 48 shots the next night as Gwinnett again slugged out a 5-4 win against the Everblades.

After struggling through a revolving door of goalies for most of the season, it’s not a stretch to call Guggenberger something of a savior.

“We had some really good goalies play for us,” said Marshall Everson, the Gladiators leading scorer last year and first signing announcement this summer. “Unfortunately, it seemed like they all played about five games and got a season-ending injury.

“Everyone played with more confidence with Guggs in net and he has the ability to steal some games for us. He was one of the best goalies we saw all season — either for or against.”

Arriving in Gwinnett was also an opportunity for Guggenberger.

He had an outstanding 2012-13 season for Alaska, his second year as a pro after a major junior career in the WHL. Guggenberger was third in the ECHL with a 2.21 goals-against average, tied for fourth with 24 wins and tied for fifth with a .918 save percentage. He was second to South Carolina’s Ryan Zapolski in voting for goaltender of the year honors and a second-team all-ECHL selection.

But last season, Guggenberger played in just six games (winning five of them) for the Aces, who had a glut of goalies.

“It was a tough situation for me, being a returning player,” said Guggenberger, as laid-back off the ice as he is twitchy on it. “I was a big part of the team the year before, but I wasn’t playing because of the affiliation.”

Alaska held his ECHL rights, but Guggenberger was free to play in another league and left when he got an offer from the CHL’s Allen Americans near Dallas.

“It was a tough decision,” Guggenberger said. “I was able to get a chance to play in Dallas and that’s what got me to make the decision.”

He appeared in 18 games with Allen, but had returned home to Minnesota to sort things out in February.

“I was really re-evaluating my options,” he said.

Then Alaska agreed to send his rights to Gwinnett and he was soon on a plane. He came in somewhat unaware of the Gladiators goaltending tribulations.

“I was just looking forward to another chance to play,” Guggenberger said. “Gwinnett is a great ECHL team that helps move players to the next level, which is what we all want.

“I left Minnesota to come to 70 degrees in Georgia. It was a great opportunity for me to come down there and finish the season. We were one of the scariest teams down the stretch.”

Guggenberger went 10-5-0-0 for the Gladiators, playing more minutes for the team than any goalie last year. In the season finale, he stopped all 21 shots he faced as Gwinnett demolished Elmira.

“We were looking for someone we can depend on,” Chapman said. “Guggs had had some bumps along the way and was looking for an opportunity to have a cage and someone to believe in him.

“It’s just nice when it all can work out that way.”

The day after the season ended, he was signed by AHL Rochester and that night made 41 saves in a 2-1 shootout loss to Lake Erie.

“He’s got the talent to play in the AHL,” said Chapman, who is expecting to have one goalie assigned by NHL affiliate Arizona this season. “The goalie situation at our level is a lot of luck sometimes. We had (Mike) Lee and Louis (Domingue) last season, but you can lose one at any moment. An injury, and you lose both.

“It’s a development league and one of the key positions that require development is goalie. But in talking to Arizona, we told them, we had to protect ourselves.”

With the signing of Guggenberger, the Gladiators have certainly shored up a vulnerability which was painfully exposed last season.