By Christine Troyke
Gwinnett Daily Post
DULUTH, Ga. -Smiling and joking around were at a minimum for weeks as the Gwinnett Gladiators battled down to the final day of the regular season to earn a playoff berth.
Once they did, and with a sterling 3-0 shutout of Charlotte, the pressure that had been choking the life out of them finally abated.
Head coach Jeff Pyle gave the team two days off to enjoy its victory and the mood was still high Tuesday when the Gladiators practiced in front of quite a few fans at the Duluth IceForum.
It was a boisterous practice with lots of talking, a major departure from recent memory. Even after the extended workout ended, the atmosphere in the locker room continued to be light. A weight was obviously lifted.
“The last couple weeks in the dressing room has been pretty stressful, battling with Mississippi for the last spot,” forward Travis Fuller said. “Hockey is fun. That’s what we’re trying to go back to right now.
“When you’re a little tight holding your sticks, things don’t go well.”
After losing three straight in the final week of the season, it all came down to the last 60 minutes. Win and they were in. Lose and they would have to count on Mississippi to also lose. The Gladiators didn’t leave it to chance and played exactly the kind of game they’ll need in the first round against No. 1 Florida.
“Each team had about a month to put each other away and no one found a way to do it,” Fuller said. “It came down to one game for both teams and we just went out and worked hard.
“We’re in the playoffs now and excited about it.”
And with the start of the postseason, Gwinnett’s sixth straight, so began the hair growth.
The Gladiators opted for moustaches this year. Fuller said they took their cue from head coach Jeff Pyle, who is by this standard playoff ready at all times.
“Sometimes you do hair, sometimes you grow beards,” Fuller said. “But we’re going to follow coach and grow a moustache.”
Some ‘staches were in better shape than others.
Fuller was doing OK, but said he was going to need to darken it up with some “Just for Men.”
Obviously, the team was in good spirits. But they’re still focused on their date with powerful Florida. The best-of-seven series starts Friday in Estero, Fla.
The Gladiators can take a lesson though from last Saturday’s finale against the Checkers.
“We played really good. Really, really good,” Pyle said with a little chuckle. “I’m not sure what happened, what team it was. Something must have kicked in from the last six months. We just played really well defensively and you could see the energy. It was one of the few times where we’ve had the urgency that we needed to make the playoffs.
“I was more nervous then than I am now. Now we’re in and you have a chance. To me this is the fun part. It’s exciting.”