Eric Tangradi said he is happy to be back in Pittsburgh playing hockey during the week of the Winter Classic. But he would be lying if he said he wouldn't rather play outside.
Tangradi, who started the season with the Penguins, returned to Pittsburgh Thursday night when the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins played the Hershey Bears at Consol Energy Center as part of the buildup to the Winter Classic. Hershey won, 1-0.
"It's nice to be in Pittsburgh and play, but it would have been even better to be in Heinz Field," Tangradi, 21, said. "But I'm young. There's a lot of hockey left for me in my career."
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coach John Hynes agreed, both saying they see a future for Tangradi in the NHL.
"We think he's a good player, a player we believe is going to play here and play a role here someday," Bylsma said. "He's working his way and finding his game, and he'll get a chance eventually someday to be that player again."
Hynes, too, said Tangradi is headed to rejoining the Penguins, whether it is this season or future seasons.
Tangradi, a big, strong left-winger, has been one of the Baby Penguins' best players in recent weeks following a nearly month-long slump after he was sent down from the NHL club. He had scored 15 points in the past 14 games going into Thursday's game against Hershey. He scored just three points in his first 12 games with the Baby Penguins.
"When he first came down, he was disappointed he came down," Hynes said.
Tangradi said his confidence was shaken during his time in Pittsburgh and immediately after being sent down to the Baby Penguins, and only recently has he regained the swagger he said he needs to be successful.
"Right when a negative happened, I let it hit me hard," he said.
"Being young, I didn't really know how to react to those kinds of situations."
Originally selected by Anaheim in the second round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, Tangradi is playing his second professional season. He scored 39 points in 65 games for the Baby Penguins last season.
Tangradi played the first nine games this season with the Penguins before being sent to the AHL affiliate.
In his time with the NHL club, Tangradi tallied just two points and struggled to find playing time after starting the season with a spot on the Penguins' second line with Evgeni Malkin.
He said his confidence really started to sag in his last three games with the club.
"That's not something you can play with during the season," he said.
After struggling early with the Baby Penguins, Tangradi took a new approach that appears to have paid off.
"When I first came back, I kind of focused my game on just getting points, and I thought that was going to get my game back to where it needed to be," he said.
"But, really, I just needed to go back to the basics, back to my foundation. Doing those things, I was able to get to the net, and from that, I've gotten a lot of chances, a lot of goals in front."
With those goals came a surge of confidence. And some recognition.
Tangradi was named the Reebok/AHL player of the week for the week ending Dec. 12 after scoring seven points (five goals, two assists) in three games.
"He's really stepped up his game," Hynes said.
Hynes added that Tangradi has matured mentally, which has helped.
Bylsma acknowledged the difficulties that can come with a step down.
"Going back down is a hard thing sometimes to swallow," he said. "He had to have some adjustments to that."
Tangradi is developing a reputation as a physical, net-front presence, Hynes said, adding he is on track to rejoin the Penguins, but he needs to show more consistency to do so.
"I think that's the biggest jump for coming from junior to pro and really from the American [Hockey] League to the NHL is being able to play at your strengths, night in and night out, at a high level," Hynes said.
Bylsma agreed that Tangradi is on the right track.
"That's what he's going to eventually end up growing into -- in a jersey with a little older Penguin on it. It's good to see him out here tonight and know he's progressing well."
NOTES -- Besides borrowing the Penguins' arena for a night, the Baby Penguins borrowed a locker room, too. Each player used the locker of a current Penguin, fresh with new name tags for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton players. But one locker -- Penguins' captain Sidney Crosby's -- was left untouched. "I just know Sid's is empty and his name tag is still there," said Ryan Craig, the Baby Penguins' captain, who used a locker just next to Crosby's. "That's how we know where it is."
Michael Sanserino: email@example.com or 412-263-1722.