Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Pinizzotto's Finally Found Niche

When the Washington Capitals inked Steve Pinizzotto to a free agent contract in March 2007, the transaction created little buzz in Chocolatetown, partially due to the fact that the team was about to embark on a defense of their Calder Cup title.

Another reason for the lack of euphoria was the fact that Pinizzotto was not a high-profile hotshot out of the junior ranks, having played his college hockey at the Rochester Institute of Technology, an establishment that had never produced an NHL player.

Fast forward now to March 2010, and the Caps’ signing three years ago looks to be a steal since the pesky Pinizzotto is in the midst of his best offensive season and regularly raises the ire of the opposition with his abrasive style of play; he is also now classified as a fully legitimate NHL prospect, something that was a long time in the making.

Pinizzotto’s decision to go the American college route to RIT as opposed to the traditional Canadian junior route may seem like a peculiar one, but he had a valid reason for choosing that path.

“I went for what was the best opportunity for me, as far as hockey goes. Going to RIT, especially at my age at the time, may not have been the best decision, but I knew that I would get some quality playing time there,” he said.

While playing hockey at RIT, Pinizzotto also found time to hit the books, majoring in a field that doesn’t exactly jump out on a resume: Packing Science. While you may initially laugh at that major, it actually factors into lives every single day.

“Packing science is just about new and innovative ways to create new packages for things such as gum and a whole variety of other products and things,” Pinizzotto explained. “You don’t hear a lot about that major, but just about everything you buy is packaged. I haven’t graduated yet though, because it’s a five-year program, and I’m still a pretty good way from that.”

After his two-year stay at RIT where he averaged better than a point per game while also averaging exactly two penalty minutes per contest, the Missisuaga, Ontario, native elected to leave the college ranks and turn pro by signing with the Caps.

“I just figured that it was the right time to move on, especially with my age; I didn’t think that I could wait a lot longer. The earlier you start your pro career, the better. I had a great time at RIT, and I could have played there a couple more years because I still have two more years left on my scholarship.”

Debuting with the Bears against the Binghamton Senators on March 25, 2007, Pinizzotto played four more regular season games for the defending Calder Cup champions before taking a backseat and riding along with the “Black Aces” during the Bears’ eventual unsuccessful defense of their title against the Hamilton Bulldogs.

Pinizzotto split the 2007-08 season, his true rookie season, shuttling between the Bears and the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays, with the majority of that time spent in the Low Country. However, that year’s first round playoff loss to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins was a coming out party for him, as he finally proved to himself that he could compete at the AHL level.

“The experience of playing in the playoffs really helps your confidence and that’s what happened with me in that series. I came to play every night and got a good bit of ice time, and also played on the PK with Jouds.”

“Jouds”, or Andrew Joudrey, is still Pinizzotto’s partner on the penalty kill. Together, the twosome is a major reason that the Bears own the top-rated penalty killing unit in the AHL this season.

“I agree with Pinner that it started coming together for both of us in that series, playing under playoff pressure,” said Joudrey. “Being in those situations, under those conditions, you get a real comfortable feeling playing with somebody. He plays the body really well, and if I can play my position well, he will force some pucks. He’s really aggressive pursuing the puck down ice on clears, and he causes the other team a lot of trouble with that approach.”

Typically, when you ask a player who is most responsible for helping them realize their potential, the answer you often get is a grizzled veteran who has been through many battles, or a top-scorer, but when asked that question, Pinizzotto had a unique answer.

“It’s the coaches,” he said. “You have a lot of communication with the assistant coaches, and since I’ve been here, both of the assistant coaches have moved up to the head coaching spot. That has given me a better connection with them.”

One of those assistant coaches, Mark French, Hershey’s head coach in this record setting season, said he knew it was just a matter of time before it all started adding up for Pinizzotto as a pro.

“There’s a big difference between playing 40 games a year in college, rather than 70 a year in junior. I think he may be a little of a late bloomer, and I think that might be a big reason for that,” French said.

“When I first got here, he was kind of a first call-up guy (from the ECHL). You could see things in him, but you were never able to get a good, consistent read on him. I think its come harder for him to get to this level, as opposed to other guys, and while it’s taken him a while, I’m really happy with his progression.”

While the previous years’ playoff was in fact a defining moment for Pinizzotto, French said he thinks the definitive turning point happened about midway through last year’s eventual Calder Cup winning season.

“Last year, about halfway through the year, our penalty kill was struggling, and he got an opportunity,” remembered French. “So, we started using him on the PK, and found out that he had a real good chemistry with Andrew Joudrey. Because he did such a good job on the PK, he earned five-on-five time ice time and he became a real abrasive SOB on the ice.”

Riding the momentum of his strong finish into the 2009 playoffs, Pinizzotto played a large role in Hershey’s playoff triumph, making his mark in every series, according to French.

“It was funny in the playoffs, because every series we were in, it would take about five minutes for him to have our opponents’ whole team going crazy. I think he’s really carried that momentum into this year, and he has parlayed that into the next stage of his development, which is to become a complete two-way player.”

With a handful of games remaining in the 2009-10 regular season, Pinizzotto has already surpassed his previous AHL career high in penalty minutes, and obliterated his previous offensive totals, currently residing at the 39 points mark (12g, 27a).

“I always knew the offensive ability was there, but you kind of get assigned to a role in the pros, and you just have to wait for the opportunity to prove otherwise,” said Pinizzotto. “I just try to combine the two elements of my game, and make the best of it.”

Obviously, the Capitals are tuned in to Pinizzotto’s potential, which was represented by them signing him to a two-year pact last summer and giving him his first NHL recall last season to play against the Toronto Maple Leafs, conveniently located near his hometown.

Although the recall had all of the potential of a happy ending, reality reared its ugly head and Pinizzotto never got a chance to suit up for the Caps when the player he was potentially replacing in the lineup was able to play.

“It was frustrating for sure. I know I can play at that the level, and the opportunity was right there for me, just a foot away. You never know how things will turn out in this business; you just have to keep working as hard as you can to get that chance again in the future,” said Pinizzotto, who is signed through next season.

However, earlier this season when the Bears made their only scheduled stop in Toronto to play the Marlies, the top farm club of the Leafs, there was a happy ending. In that encounter, not only did Pinizzotto suit up, he even lit the goal lamp for the family and friends on hand to watch him play.

“Playing in Hershey, it’s about an eight hour drive from home and my family does not get many chances to see me play. It was great to have so many family members at that game. For a lot of them, it was the first goal that they had ever seen me score in my pro career,” he smiled.

Most people consider the number 13 an unlucky one, but for Pinizzotto, it has worked out just fine; besides, he had little choice when the number was given to him as a rookie.

“They just kind of gave it to me. I didn’t ask any questions, and I just took it; but it doesn’t really matter what’s on your back, what matters is how hard you play the game.”

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