By Christine Troyke
Gwinnett Daily Post
DULUTH, Ga. – A three-foot white poster board leaned against a box in the Gwinnett Gladiators’ equipment manager’s office. Obscured by other flotsam, only the top half was visible.
Three raised squares, each with part of a larger picture on it, were still in place. The rest of the 17 drawn-in spaces were blank. But the first three pieces revealed the top edge of the ECHL’s biggest prize – the Kelly Cup.
Those three pieces came courtesy of a first-round sweep of the Charlotte Checkers.
There were enough spaces for the total number of victories it would have taken to claim the championship.
The Gladiators won two more games before being ousted by South Carolina, but those pieces weren’t on it.
The dream, and the poster, were left incomplete. But not the puzzle of why Gwinnett’s season ended in the second round against a Stingrays’ team that made it to the conference finals.
The Gladiators’ power play – among the league’s best all season – went flat and they failed to hold leads in the first two games in South Carolina. The second was an overtime loss that head coach Jeff Pyle considered ultimately critical.
“Game 2 killed us. That was it,” Pyle said, rehashing things after the season ended last month. “When we were on our game, we were really good.”
Pyle blamed himself, not the players.
“In the end, I guess that comes back to me,” he said. “You think you’ve got everybody ready and it’s one or two little things that cause the energy, whether it be negative or positive.
“I don’t want to take anything away from South Carolina. They played hard. But we just didn’t get it done.”
But it wasn’t a personnel issue, according to Pyle. Not like 2007 when problems in the locker room derailed the team and resulted in a first-round exit.
“I mean, yeah, I wish guys would have stepped up a little bit better, but it was a good group,” Pyle said. “I’ll go to bat with that group again.
“I don’t think I would have changed a thing. We, in Games 1 and 2, just didn’t get it done. That’s really all it was. We had to have one of those two games.”
The other major factor was a power-play outage. Gwinnett’s ability to convert on with the man advantage shrank to fatal levels.
The Gladiators finished the regular season second in the ECHL with a 21.5-percent conversion rate on the power play. In the playoffs, they were 6 of 51 – 11.8 percent and the number falls even lower when the first-round series sweep of Charlotte is taken out of the equation.
Against South Carolina, Gwinnett’s vaunted power play was effective a paltry 9.7 percent of the time – 3 of 31 in five games, including 0-for-5 in Game 2 and 0-for-4 in Game 5.
“It was a great group,” Pyle said. “I don’t think there was anything wrong with the personnel. Our power play didn’t get it done and that was the difference of that series right there.
“My biggest disappointment in the playoffs was we didn’t work hard enough on our power play. No, that’s the only disappointment to tell you the truth.”
There’s no question the players were disappointed with the results, despite the many obstacles they hurdled throughout the year.
Never before in the franchise’s history here were there as many transactions. Pyle was juggling his lineup almost daily because of callups and injuries.
Schell himself overcame quite a bit to play even part of the season. The 2006-07 ECHL MVP suffered a back injury while at AHL training camp and didn’t start playing again until February. When he made his return, he chose to do it in Gwinnett.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better situation to step into,” Schell said. “I had some tough luck at the start, but they opened their arms to me coming back, and this is one of the greatest groups I’ve ever played on with the character and developing as a team.
“I think you look at it, and it’s sad that we end on a losing note, but that happens in hockey. I mean, it was a great group of guys to come to and I’ll remember this season for years to come.”
Also feeling the sting of coming up short was all-star goaltender Craig Kowalski. Kowalski wasn’t re-signed by NHL Carolina following the expiration of his initial three-year pro contract last summer. He could have playing many places and picked Gwinnett. Kowalski set a personal record for wins in a season and is now with the Gladiators’ AHL affiliate in Chicago. But after losing Game 5 in South Carolina, Kowalski was blunt in his assessment of the season.
“We had a good season, we didn’t have a great season,” he said. “This is obviously not where we wanted to end, in April. That’s not why I came here. That’s not why a lot of guys came here.”
Tempering that was the regard Kowalski had for his teammates.
“It’s very disappointing, but there are a lot of great guys in this locker room,” the Michigan native said. “We really battled hard. We never died. We could have quit after Game 2 when we lost here – and we didn’t.
“That shows a lot of character in this room. It’s something to be really proud of that our team was able to come back like that.”
Pyle couldn’t say how much of this roster would return in 2008-09. Some, certainly. The Gladiators have always done a good job of keeping a solid core from one year to the next. Pyle seemed to think a number of his guys would be testing the waters in Europe – including, he said, Kowalski, Schell and Campbell.
However it shakes out in the offseason, Pyle said he enjoyed this year and the players who donned Gwinnett’s black and maroon.
“Guys worked hard and short-handed at times during the year, everybody stepped it up when they had to,” Pyle said. “I was extremely proud of them and it was a pleasure to work with them.”