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by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins

Chris Peluso and Brian Gifford played against each other in high school.

Next year, they’re going to oppose each other in college.

Some day, they hope to be teammates in Pittsburgh.

Right now, they are battling each other in the United States Hockey League.

Peluso, Pittsburgh’s 2004 seventh-round pick (194th overall), is a member of the Sioux Falls Stampede. Gifford, the Penguins’ 2004 third-round selection (85th overall), is playing for the Indiana Ice.

“That’d be great to be on the same team one day,” Peluso said.

“It’s cool. Also, in the summer, we go to the same camps and see each other there, too,” Gifford said. “We’ve been playing against each other since high school and now in the juniors and possibly against each other in college. It’s cool seeing him. The hockey world is kind of small.”

The two grew up in Minnesota. Peluso attended Brainerd High School in the central part of the state, while Gifford went to Moorhead, which is along Minnesota’s western border. About three hours separates the two schools, but they came across each other on the ice.

The distance is greater for the two players now, but they still battled each other twice this season in USHL action.

“It’s fun playing against each other,” Gifford said.

Peluso and his Stampede teammates are having the most success in the USHL this season. Sioux Falls (42-13-3) clinched the regular-season league title.

“I have been playing a lot and our team is doing real well. Things have been going well,” Peluso said. “We’re doing pretty well in Sioux Falls. We’re the top team this year and we didn’t even make the playoffs last year, so it’s been quite a turnaround. It’s a lot better being at the top than at the bottom, that’s for sure.”

The 5-foot-11, 185-pound defenseman has five goals and 19 assists through 57 games. That’s up from one goal and seven assists in 53 games last season. He has three assists in 11 playoff games as the Stampede is in the third round of the Clark Cup Playoffs.

“I kind of knew after last year I’d be playing a lot this year and running the power play and being a top-two defenseman,” he said. “I am happy with where I am right now.”

However, the 19-year-old Peluso wants to continue to improve so he can contribute once he heads to Bemidji State in the fall.

“It’s kind of a smaller school, but their hockey team keeps getting better every year. I think I will step in and play right away there,” he said. “I just want to keep getting better and jump into college next year.”

Peluso is the latest Penguins prospect to play for Sioux Falls. Andy Sertich, Alex Goligoski, Joe Jensen and Joe Vitale are some of the others. Peluso remains close with Vitale, who is a freshman at Northeastern University.

“We’re pretty good friends. We could definitely use him here this year,” Peluso said. “Every month or so, I keep in touch with him.” 

Meanwhile, Gifford and his Indiana teammates were eliminated in the playoffs. The 6-2, 187-pound forward has 12 goals and 14 assists in 56 games for the Ice. He had 13 goals and 10 assists in 55 games last season. He had two assists in five playoff games.

“The season has gone well, but not as well as expected,” he said. “I am kind of having a down year, but I am learning a lot and getting better. I am becoming a better person and maturing and growing up, too.”

Gifford, who is 20, will attend the University of Denver in the fall. He is eager to join the 2004 and 2005 NCAA champions.

“That will be a lot of fun. I am really looking forward to it,” he said. “It’s a really good school with a good team and it’s in a good place. I like the school, climate and atmosphere there. I am looking forward to it and want to be a part of it.”

Gifford plans to work hard this summer to prepare himself to play for the successful Pioneers.

“My biggest goal over the summer is just to improve and get bigger, stronger and work on things,” he said. “I am just getting ready to go through the college experience and go there to be an impact player.”



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