The NHL Pittsburgh Penguins have been dealing with injury woes all season and the strengths and weaknesses of the current lineup and their playoff hopes have been discussed ad nauseam. But down in the minor leagues the Pens AHL and ECHL affiliates are battling just to keep their playoff hopes alive.
With the Olympics over and the NHL season kicking back into high gear, there were a number of moves as players around the league rejoined the NHL. This seemed like the perfect opportunity for the Baby Pens to make some changes and give some players that have fallen off a chance to get back on track. With that object in mind, they made a couple moves today by calling up goaltender Peter Mannino from the Wheeling Nailers and sending down goaltender Eric Hartzell as well as forwards Tom Kuhnhackl and Anton Zlobin.
The WBS Baby Pens fell down the standing after a 6 game losing streak before winning a hard fought match up on Tuesday. It has been a rough month in general, having won just 3 of 10 games in February. And Hartzell's decline was a big part of that. During the month of February he was pulled from the net in 4 of his 6 starts, finishing with a 1-3-0 record, a 4.45 GAA, and a .838 Sv%. A huge slide for a player that was named the AHL Goaltender of the Month in January. The coaching staff hopes a stay in the Wheel will help him get over whatever has caused this setback so that he can return a stronger goaltender.
Before being sent back down to the Nailers, Zlobin had been scratched 4 games in a row, having been in a bit of a slump as of late. Zlobin had just 2 Assists and a -1 through the 6 games he played in February, after posting 5 Goals, 3 Assists, and a +9 through 16 games from mid-December to mid-January. The end of January so his longest stretch without scoring a single point, held off the board for 5 straight games, as well as the first games he finished with a negative rating this year. He is a young rookie, so the slight bump in the road is no cause for concern, and his return to Wheeling will help not only him developmentally but also the Nailers as a playoff hopeful team.
Kuhnhackl has been scratched 3 out of the past 6 games before getting sent to Wheeling, and had been in the doghouse for some time before that. He didn't post a single point during the month of February and going back into mid-January he had been kept off the board for 13 straight games, finishing as a -3 during that stretch. He had a hot streak in late October and then again in early January, but for the must part he has been incredibly inconsistent and quite unimpressive this season.
The Baby Pens have gone 29-19-3-4, falling down to #3 in the East Division with just a 1 point lead over the Hershey Bears who have a game in hand. They also currently sit at #7 in the Eastern Conference, tied with the Providence Bruins and fighting to keep themselves in the running for a playoff spot.
A nice solid win streak will put them back in good standing as the seeding from #2-#9 is still quite wide open, the #2 Springfield Falcons have 71 Points, the #3 Binghamton Senators lead the East Division with 70 Points and a game in hand, the #4 St. John's ICeCaps have 68 Points, the #5 Albany Devils have 66 Points and a game in hand, and the #6 Norfolk Admirals who are 2nd in the East Division have 66 Points and a game in hand. The Baby Pens and P-Bruins come in at #7 and #8 with 65 Points and are just ahead of the #9 Bears who have 64 Points and a game in hand.
Peter Mannino is an interesting case. He started out signed in the summer to an AHL deal with an eye towards backing up Jeff Zatkoff. However, with the injury to Tomas Vokoun requiring Zatkoff to remain in the AHL the Baby Pens added Jeff Deslauriers to a PTO. Mannino suffered an off-season injury and came into AHL Training Camp injured, so he didn't get a chance to play and thus lost out his spot to Deslauriers and Hartzell by default.
He joined the Wheeling Nailers for ECHL Training Camp, but before the Nailers season started just a couple of games into the Baby Pens season Hartzell got hurt and Mannino got called back up to replace him. He remained with the team as Deslauriers' backup and Hartzell went to the ECHL to rehab after coming back from injury. However, when Hartzell was deemed ready he got called back up and Mannino assigned to the Nailers. He did not want to play in the ECHL and refused to report, getting suspended by the team. But towards the end of January he did decide to report to the Nailers, played well, and earned another shot at the AHL.
In 6 games with the Nailers, Mannino went 3-3-0 with a 2.29 GAA and .926 Sv%. During his first stay in WBS he played just 3 games, going 1-1-0 with a 2.02 GAA and .926 Sv% in October, but after one bad game in which he was pulled from the net after giving up 5 goals on 19 shots in two periods of play he was exiled and hasn't played in the AHL since.
The Wheeling Nailers are 27-21-1-5 so far this year, currently sitting at #9 in the Eastern Conference on the outside of the bubble looking in. It is still an entirely tight race, with even the 10th place team still having a reasonable chance of making the playoffs at this point. The Nailers are just 4 Points behind the Reading Royals who are #1 in the Atlantic Division, but Reading has 2 games in hand. In fact, the Nailers have played more games than anybody else in their Conference, with the remaining teams they are trying to surpass having between 1 and 3 games in hand.
The #1 South Carolina Stingrays have 71 Points and 1 game in hand, the #2 Orlando Solar Bears have 67 Points and 3 games in hand, the #3 Kalamazoo Wings have 65 Points and 2 games in hand, the #4 Royals have 65 Points and 2 games in hand, the #5 Cincinnati Cyclones have 62 Points and 2 games in hand, the #6 Fort Wayne Komets and #7 Greenville Road Warrions have 61 Points and 1 game in hand, and the #8 Florida Everblades have 60 Points and 3 games in hand. The Nailers are #9 with 60 Points and have a small lead over the #10 Evansville IceMen who have 57 Points and 3 games in hand.