by Russ Hryvnak || AHL On The Beat Archive
Every player has their own ways of getting ready for games. Each has small quirks or routines that they do to physically and mentally prepare themselves to go to war with another team.
For the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins’ newest netminder, Eric Hartzell, it’s juggling.
Before every game, Hartzell can be found juggling three balls, bouncing them off of his head, feet and hands. Mentally dialing himself in for the game.
The 24-year-old was signed as a free agent by the Pittsburgh Penguins in April after leading Quinnipiac University to the NCAA championship game. He began the season with Wheeling in the ECHL, and is now taking advantage of the opportunity in Wilkes-Barre.
Hartzell was 4-2-0 through his first six AHL starts, with a goals-against average of 2.18 and a save percentage of .913. He also has two shutouts to his credit, one against Binghamton and one against Utica, tying him for second in the entire American Hockey League in that category.
What does Hartzell attribute his early successes to? The group of guys he plays with.
“Obviously this is a team sport,” Hartzell said. “You win as a team and you lose as a team. This team we have now isn’t the one we started the season with, but they are all hard working guys and I can’t credit them enough.”
Recently, Hartzell had a chance to do something he had yet to do during the season: start two games in a row. On Dec. 13 he posted a 5-3 win against the rival Hershey Bears, and on Dec. 14 he grabbed his second shutout when the Penguins beat Utica, 1-0.
Hartzell says that more minutes will only help his game. “The more you get to play, the more experience you get,” he said. “Getting the two starts in a row shows that the coaches have confidence in my game. The more opportunities I get to play, the more comfortable I will get.”
As a rookie in the league this season, Hartzell has veteran Jeff Deslauriers helping him learn as he goes.
“Jeff is a great guy; he is one of those very approachable people,” Hartzell said. “If you ever have a question or a problem all you need to do is ask. He is more than willing to help. We have a really good relationship and he will find things in my game, take me aside to tell me his thoughts and help me out.”
Call-ups go with the territory of playing at the AHL level. Recently, Pittsburgh has been experiencing a number of injuries and calling on Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to fill the voids. With so many players — especially defensemen — coming in and out of the lineup, one might think it would throw the goaltender off. Hartzell, however, says otherwise.
“The greatest part of this organization is that it doesn’t matter if you are in Wheeling, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton or Pittsburgh, it’s all the same stuff,” he said. “If you are a guy getting called up from Wheeling, it’s not anything new and it’s easier to fit in. Having the same system in place allows the new guys to jump in without it affecting the team.”
Throughout the injuries and call-ups, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has been able to stay in first place in the East Division.
“We have a lot of guys who want to prove themselves,” Hartzell said. “Everyone is taking advantage of the opportunities they have and we are all striving for excellence. You can only get the best results when people are working that hard.”
Hartzell has experienced success before. In his senior season at Quinnipiac, he was a Hobey Baker Award finalist, named the ECAC Hockey Player of the Year and won the ECAC Ken Dryden Goaltender of the Year award, won previously by the likes of Tim Thomas and Ben Scrivens. He also posted five shutouts and held a record of 30-7-5.
On the flip side of the coin, Hartzell also knows how difficult hockey can sometimes be. Although the Bobcats made it to the NCAA championship game, they lost to Yale by a score of 4-0. Hartzell says for as much as he likes winning, you can’t win them all.
“You are going to eventually lose a game,” he said. “I liked that the coaches kept me in the net even though I let five goals in (Dec. 6 at St. John’s), it gave me the chance to battle back. There were definitely some of them I wish I stopped, but if you take the good out of the bad, it is only going to make you better.”
From the first time Hartzell strapped the pads on back when he played squirt hockey, he fell in love with the position. As a goalie one needs to be mentally focused, ready to make saves and able to handle a lot of pressure.
For Hartzell, this is no problem. He is used to juggling.