By Christine Troyke
Gwinnett Daily Post
DULUTH, Ga. – Down but not out, the atmosphere around the Gwinnett Gladiators’ locker room on Tuesday was up-beat.
Surprisingly so, considering how they let two games slip away in their first-round playoff series against league-leader Florida.
After the mid-week practice, there was a lot of clowning around and laughing. Several guys showed off their “Guitar Hero” skills (some more dubious than others).
Even head coach Jeff Pyle – who wasn’t smiling when he rehashed last weekend’s Games 1 and 2 – made a few jokes before heading out Tuesday afternoon.
“You always want to stay loose,” said defenseman Brennan Turner, one of the players showing off his vocal prowess Tuesday. “The more pressure you put on yourself, the tighter you start holding your stick and we can’t afford to do that.
“We’ve got to keep it loose. Everyone is confident that we can win the next couple games here at home.”
Despite being in a 2-0 hole, the Gladiators aren’t hitting the panic button.
“I think a lot of guys were able to put it aside,” said forward Brandon Kaleniecki, who scored a goal in each game. “I think you have to. There’s such a big gap between Games 2 and 3, it might make it a little more difficult because you have more time to think about it.
“But if we want any chance to win the series, we know we have to move on and just focus on Game 3.”
One factor in that attitude is certainly that this is a best-of-seven series, so the Gladiators don’t face elimination when Florida comes to the Arena at Gwinnett Center for Game 3 on Thursday.
“Obviously, home ice is huge,” Kaleniecki said. “We’re fortunate the way it works is we do have three games at home. They held serve. If we hold serve, well, then we go back to their place up 3-2. That’s the way you’ve got to look at it.
“But bottom line, we can’t look past Game 3. That’s all that matters right now.”
Also influencing the mood was that the Gladiators were in a position to win both games, especially Game 2, in Estero, Fla. They haven’t been dominated by the loaded Everblades and that’s a positive sign.
“I don’t think we feel a whole lot of pressure,” Pyle said. “Nobody expects us to win. We’ve had two opportunities that we let slip through our fingers.
“We need to execute better. Our discipline needs to be better than it was. But the thing is, now we’re at home.”
Barring a sweep, the next three games will be here Thursday, Friday and Sunday before the series returns to Florida.
But Gwinnett will have to make some corrections to get there. The Gladiators still committed the mistakes that have cost them wins all season – penalties and defensive gaffes – against the Everblades.
The Gladiators had a golden chance to steal one of the first two games at Germain Arena. But an unforgivable penalty for too many men on the ice in the final two minutes allowed the Everblades to tie the game and Florida won it in overtime.
Pyle agreed having defenseman Jean-Claude Sawyer jump the boards when he shouldn’t have was bad. But said it wasn’t the whole reason Gwinnett lost for first time all season when leading after two periods.
“We still should have killed it,” Pyle said of the penalty. “I told the guys, on the PK, always one ‘D’ in front of the net. Well, we had nobody in front of the net and (league-leading scorer Kevin) Baker’s by himself. We just broke down and it made me sick.
“But in the end, it started with the two penalties by (Matt) Siddall that gives them energy. We kill the one at the beginning of the third and then he takes one again right after. Just unnecessary. Those are the kind of things they feed off of. Before that, their fans were booing them, we had full control, they weren’t doing anything.”
Florida scored on the second of Siddall’s penalties to make it 2-1 before Baker tied it in the final 90 seconds.
Even after going over the problems from both games, Pyle isn’t counting his team out.
“It’s there to take if we want it, but it’s got to be a maximum effort from each player,” he said. “We’ve been training for Florida all year. We’ve got to be thinking the game. When we think the game, it’s not so much with your legs now, it’s more being in the right place, knowing where to work and how to work.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to teach them all year. That’s why some of these guys are struggling right now – because they haven’t listened all year.”