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Meloche the Pens’ center of attention

As a fourth-year center, Eric Meloche has certainly become familiar with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins locker room. But when he recently walked back through the doors following a 25-game stint in the NHL, he almost felt like an outsider.

“I didn’t really recognize too many players,” he said. “I played with some of them and I knew some of them from Wheeling, but it was definitely a different atmosphere. Usually you come down and you know the whole team, but this time I had no clue.”

The atmosphere that Meloche describes is one that stems from countless injuries and numerous NHL call-ups. And it is one that puts him in position to carry the team on his back.

All he has to do is play like he played prior to his most recent NHL recall.

“I was playing well,” Meloche said, remembering the way he was playing during the latter half of December. “(Head Coach) Michel (Therrien) gave me a lot of confidence to play the way I wanted to play. He put me in a position to succeed, and I played well.”

Therrien did put Meloche in a position to succeed – center.

After playing his entire junior, collegiate and professional career on the right wing, the Pens, head coach decided to give Meloche a shot at center. And the success that ensued had him looking like a genius.

For about a two-week stretch, Meloche was the best player that Therrien had on the ice. By the time he was recalled on Dec. 28, the native of Montreal was in the midst of a six-game point streak and had tallied at least one point in 11 of his previous 14 contests.

“It was a new position for me,” Meloche said. “I never played center before. It’s a tough position, just because you are always in the play and you’re always going from one end of the ice to the other. Luckily, I was able to use my speed to my advantage, get back in the plays and have some success.

“I had this feeling that the call was coming, so I just kept playing well.”

Pittsburgh did eventually come calling, which was probably the only thing that could have stopped Meloche’s assault on AHL goaltenders.

The 27-year-old forward returned to the Steel City just three days after Christmas for what proved to be his longest stay to date. He played in 25 NHL games, tallying three goals, seven assists and 20 hard-earned penalty minutes.

And while he was hoping his trip would last until the end of the season, he returned to Wilkes-Barre on Feb. 22 with one thought in mind – the Calder Cup Playoffs.

“That’s the main thing,” he said. “The main thing here is to make the playoffs. We’re getting to that stretch where it’s fun to play hockey. Up there, we’ve been out pretty much since the beginning of the year.

“You know, staying up there is always the biggest thing. You never want to be demoted in your business, but that stuff happens and you just have to suck it up. Now I want come down here, win and make the playoffs.”

For coach Therrien, the decision to put Meloche back in the middle was a no-brainer. Upon his return, the first-year head coach penciled his star forward into the top line, between left wing Toby Petersen and right wing Michel Ouellet.

And the mission was clear. Score points.

“I was never really considered a point-getter as a pro,” Meloche said. “As a junior and at college I was asked to get some points, but here I was mostly used as a defensive forward. But Michel has put me in this position, and he wants me to put up some points, lead the team and do what I have to do to get the team a win.

“But if the team plays well, I play well. And that’s the main thing. I’m not worried about their jobs. They’ll do what they have to do, and I’ll just do what I have to do.”

When Meloche came back to Wilkes-Barre, he found his new mates trailing the Binghamton Senators by four points for the fifth and final playoff slot in the AHL’s East Division. But thanks to his help, the postseason is now looking like a good bet.

The former Ohio State Buckeye tallied six points (2+4) over his first eight games back and helped the Pens leapfrog the Senators in the standings. And looking up in the tight East, they see more room for climbing.

As of March 9, the fifth-place Pens trailed the fourth-place Hershey Bears by just two points and the third-place Norfolk Admirals by only three. And they were also enjoying a few games in hand on both teams.

“You have to take advantage of the games in hand,” Meloche said. “We have a lot of games in hand on them, but if you don’t win, then they are useless.”

Meloche’s desire to focus on the playoffs has to be promising for the Penguins. After all, that desire is just what they need as they head down the stretch, armed with a depleted line-up.

He will not only be manning the center position on the ice — he will also be the center of attention on a team that needs someone to step into the role of leader. That is another position that Meloche is happy to assume.

“I think Michel has put me in that position,” he said, “and I’m more than willing to take it. But like I said, the wins are most important right now, and it’s just a matter of playing together. It doesn’t matter who’s on the ice.”