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Talented Penguins trio struggles as Baby Pens falter

| Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013, 7:18 p.m.

The plan was simple enough for winger Eric Tangradi and defensemen Brian Strait and Robert Bortuzzo heading into this season: Go down to Wilkes-Barre for a few months, get in game shape, help the Baby Pens rack up some wins, then head to Pittsburgh once training camp finally started with a good chance to make the opening-night NHL roster.

The plan worked smoothly for a while.

In November, Tangradi was among the AHL scoring leaders with nine goals, and Strait and Bortuzzo were an elite shutdown defensive pair as the Baby Pens went on a 10-2-0 roll.

But suddenly and unexpectedly, the season took a dramatic turn for the worse for the Baby Pens as a team and Tangradi, Strait and Bortuzzo individually.

The Baby Pens went 2-7-3 in December to fall out of a playoff spot in the AHL's Eastern Conference. Coming into this weekend, Tangradi, Strait and Bortuzzo combined for no goals, two points — both Tangradi assists — and a minus-18 rating in their last nine games.

“This is probably one of the toughest slumps I've been in in my pro career,” said Tangradi, who has one goal in his last 17 games. “I always try to push myself a little bit harder. I demand a lot out of myself. Ultimately, I think that pressure needs to be fuel to be a spark and get these guys out of it.”

It's easy to brush off the trio's atrocious numbers as simple by-products of a losing streak. It's nearly impossible for players on a losing team to post good statistics, especially in the plus-minus category.

But it's also clear which players are going to have to lead the Baby Pens out of the hole they dug for themselves in December. It's not the rookies or the role players. It's players on the NHL bubble like Tangradi, Strait and Bortuzzo.

“You have to be able to have guys step up and play well and be able to perform,” coach John Hynes said.

Whether a deal is reached or the season is canceled, most agree the NHL labor situation is within days of coming to a head. No one in the Baby Pens locker room seems to think that potential distraction has anything to do with the team's recent slide.

“Long before this has gone on, we've been hot and cold in certain situations,” Hynes said. “I wouldn't say that's had any effect as of late.”

Tangradi admitted that lockout talk among players will probably pick up as negotiations near a conclusion, but he said he thinks that should make players perform better, not worse.

“You do get a little antsy, but in turn, I want to be the best player I can be and the most confident I can be when I get there,” Tangradi said. “Things aren't going very well here, but we have an opportunity — all of us — to get some confidence and put some good hockey together.”

Jonathan Bombulie has covered the Baby Pens for the Citizens' Voice in Wilkes-Barre since the team's inception in 1999. He can be reached via email at jbombulie@aol.com.

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