Five years ago, American Hockey League veteran Bryan Helmer provided playoff tips for Steve Pinizzotto. Nowadays, it’s Pinizzotto who’s passing along those words of wisdom to Oklahoma City Barons teammates.
“That first year Ryan Helmer was our captain and gave a speech I’ll always remember,” said Pinizzotto who was with the powerhouse Hershey Bears at the time. “He had been a pro 15 years and had made it to the finals only once. He told us you have to enjoy the moment. That’s what I’m trying to pass along to these guys.”
The Barons can move a step closer to clinching a fourth consecutive AHL playoff berth Wednesday night when they host the probable top-seeded Texas Stars at 7 inside the Cox Convention Center. The Barons currently sit in the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot, although Rockford and Charlotte are just two standings points behind.
Game against Iowa, the worst team in the Western Conference, are 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Cox Center. By the end of this week’s games, the Barons will know their playoff fate. Pinizzotto hopes the things he says to teammates will have an impact now that it’s crunch time.
“It’s huge for our young guys to be around a guy like Pinner,” said Barons coach Todd Nelson. “He knows what it takes, what you have to go through to win a championship. That experience is invaluable.”
Pinizzotto appeared in 42 of 43 playoffs games with Hershey when it won back-to-back Calder Cup championships in 2009 and 2010. Including the playoffs, he has 193 points in 387 AHL games.
“You can see it in his game,” said Barons teammate Brad Hunt, who has set the franchise record for points by a defenseman. “He likes to hit, he likes to do the dirty work. You have to break through the brick wall to get to the other side. He knows what it takes to break through that brick wall.”
It’s been a whirlwind season for Pinizzotto.
Last season, the Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, product finally realized his dream of playing in the NHL, getting a chance with the Vancouver Canucks. This season, he wasn’t even getting ice time with the San Antonio Rampage, the affiliate of the Florida Panthers.
A trade to Oklahoma City proved to be the break he needed. And it led to a six-game promotion to Edmonton, the Barons’ parent team.
“Growing up, every single coach I had always told me I could play in the NHL,” Pinizzotto said. “I had a terrible string of bad luck. I was finally going to make it at age 27 and then I had a shoulder injury.”
Pinizzotto is a grinder, best known for finishing checks. He brings a physical element to a skilled team.
“Late in your career you don’t expect to get that tap on the shoulder to go up,” Nelson said of Pinizzotto’s promotion to the Oilers. “This was a fresh start for Pinner, and he made the most of it. He played well up there. They liked the way he played. It’s a new lease on life for him.”
Pinizzotto said it was frustrating while waiting for an opportunity to play in the NHL.
“Hockey is a business you can’t control. Even if you’re playing well, the openings aren’t always there,” Pinizzotto said. “In San Antonio, it looked like a dead-end road... but in the end it worked out for the best.
“I’ve played on a couple of championship teams. When a team is bonding like this team has the past few months, buying into the system, you start winning games. That’s what’s happening here.”
Pinizzotto turns 30 next week. His immediate focus is to help the Barons — who have three 19-year-olds on the roster — clinch a playoff berth and try to make a run in the postseason. Oklahoma City has reached the Western Conference championship round the last two seasons.
“I feel I belong up there full-time,” Pinizzotto said of the NHL. “You have to catch a break. I think those games up there, I think, I showed I belong. I think I turned some heads. I’ll try to carry that into next year.”