By Christine Troyke
Gwinnett Daily Post
DULUTH, Ga. – On paper and in many people’s minds, it doesn’t look good for the Gwinnett Gladiators.
They meet the Florida Everblades, winners of the ECHL’s Brabham Cup for most points this season, in a first-round, best-of-7 playoff series that starts Friday in Estero, Fla.
But in the minds of the people who really matter in this equation, it’s not a foregone conclusion.
“The pressure was on to get in the playoffs,” forward Pat Bateman said. “We weren’t playing well. We, I think, put a lot of pressure on ourselves. Now that we’re in, we don’t feel any pressure.
“They’re supposed to win. We want that underdog role. We believe in ourselves.”
Their coach also believes in them and if the right Gwinnett team shows up, it’ll be a tremendous series.
“Right now I don’t think we have any pressure on us,” head coach Jeff Pyle said. “I don’t think anybody expects us to beat them.
“I’ve had a lot of calls from people that want us to beat them. But it’s one of those things, how many people believe? We know if we play the way we can, we can compete with anybody.”
In six seasons, no Gladiators team has ever run so hot and cold. They can go from very good to very bad overnight. It’s truly a Jekyll-and-Hyde situation.
Gwinnett lost three of its last four regular-season games, but avoided completely backing into the playoffs with a top-shelf shutout performance on the road against Charlotte in the finale.
It was the first shutout of the season and a lot of credit goes to goalie Joe Fallon, a Chicago Blackhawks’ prospect that has been stellar between the pipes since arriving at Christmas time. But against Charlotte, he got a lot of help from the rest of the team. And that will be the key to this series with Florida.
“It was just a positive way to go into the playoffs, knowing you’re going to play the best team and knowing that we have to play great defense if we’re going to compete in this series,” Pyle said.
The Gladiators watched a lot of film this week in preparation for tonight’s Game 1. They got two days off to relax after securing the club’s sixth consecutive postseason berth and were back at it on Tuesday.
“We know what we do negatively that puts us in a bind,” Pyle said. “It’s a matter of showing when we’re in certain situations, what our options are. The film doesn’t lie. Every team has holes in their armor and that team is no different.
“You’ve definitely got to get traffic in front of their goaltenders, you’ve got to go to the net looking for rebounds and you’ve got to be so patient. We’re going to have to defend and then frustrate them so hopefully they’ll make the mistakes we need them to make.”
Pyle has plenty of footage to draw from. The teams met 14 times in the regular season. Florida won the majority of those games – as it did against virtually every opponent this season. But Gwinnett’s four wins all came in this calendar year and, despite a rather dismal road record, the Gladiators did beat the Everblades once at Germain Arena.
“Everybody knows what everybody has,” Pyle said. “It’s a matter of who executes. On paper, they have more talent. But I like our heart and I like our grit.”
It’s a seven-game series stretched out over nearly two weeks. Never before have the Gladiators played this long of a series in the first round.
“It’s a heavyweight fight,” Bateman said. “You’ve got to take the body.”
Which may ultimately favor the Gladiators.
From the beginning, Pyle has said he built this team for the playoffs. He put together a feisty, more physical lineup than ever before and now everyone will see if that pays off.
“We just have to work defensively,” Pyle said. “You’ve got to look for switches, you’ve got to make sure that pucks get deep and that they have to come 200 feet.
“We need to get a good forecheck, keep pucks deep, don’t throw it blind. We don’t need to think, ‘Hey we’ve got to score, we’ve got to score.’ You’re going to get your opportunities.
“We cannot take any selfish penalties. We can’t run around. You’ve got to be clear in your mind what we’re doing. You’ve got to know where you’re going, you’ve got to know why you’re going there. We can’t puck watch. You’ve just got to be simple in your game.”
The teams play tonight and Saturday in Florida then get four days off before returning to the Arena at Gwinnett Center for up to three games. The first two, Thursday and April 17, are guaranteed. Baring a sweep, Game 5 is April 19 and the series would conclude in Florida on April 21 and 22.
“It’s going to be fun because it’s spread out the first two weeks,” Pyle said. “We’re going to have two hard games then we have a chance to rest, regroup and go at it again at home.
“In the end, we have no fear. We know they’re a good team. We know what they have. We know if we play our game and we don’t turn the puck over, we have a good chance.”
It’s something to believe in.