JOHNSTOWN -- In his second season of professional hockey, Casey Haines has taken on a leadership role with the Reading Royals.
The Indiana native hopes in the next month-and-a-half he can help lead his team into the playoffs.
Haines has taken on increased responsibility in Reading's lineup, including a part-time assistant captain position. His Royals fell to four points and three spots out of the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference of the East Cost Hockey League on Sunday with a 7-5 loss to the Wheeling Nailers, who played their home game at the Cambria County War Memorial Arena in Johnstown.
A 25-year-old center, Haines is no longer a rookie getting his feet wet in professional hockey, and he has seen an increase in ice time, especially on special teams, this season. Coach Larry Courville also put more responsibility on Haines in the locker room, naming him one of the team's three alternate captains.
"It's a little bit more of a leadership role," Haines said. "Maybe (Courville) likes what he's hearing, I don't know."
Teams use one captain and two assistants per game. Reading, the ECHL affiliate of the NHL's Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs, is using its second assistant spot on two players. Haines wears the 'A' when the Royals use their black jerseys -- generally worn in the ECHL on the road in the first half of the season and at home in the second -- and veteran forward Yannick Tifu holds the honor in the white jerseys.
The captaincy isn't common for players so new to the pro game, but Haines is somewhat advanced as a former college player, having played for Division I Ferris State. Haines left Indiana at age 15 to play in more competitive junior leagues in Michigan and Texas.
"If you think about it, I'm actually an older guy because of college," he said. "I'm up in the age of a lot of the guys that are captains; I just don't have the pro experience."
Haines said the biggest difference from his rookie season to his second, though, is his number of opportunities. He has become a more vital player for the Royals this season, particularly in special teams. He has eight goals and 14 assists (22 points) in 34 games this season.
"Last year I got to play sparingly, whenever the guys on special teams got called up," he said. "This year I'm a bit of a staple guy on the power play. … I think I proved it to them last year that I can handle the situation."
Haines centered a line with Tifu and Dale Mitchell on the wings Sunday. He saw plenty of power-play time, especially early on. He was not on the ice, however, when the Royals converted three of their four first-period power-play chances into goals.
Reading fell apart in the third period, its mistakes snowballing into a four-goal period for the Nailers. Looking to tie the game, Courville went with the hot hands, sending the productive first-period players out while Haines saw little ice time late in the game.
"I obviously didn't play toward the end much," Haines said, "but the guys that were scoring needed to be out there."
Reading (21-22-3) sits in 11th place in the 12-team Eastern Conference, but with 48 points, it is one of three teams within quick striking distance of eighth place and the final playoff spot. The Royals have 23 games between now and March 31 to close the gap.
One thing they should have in their playoff push is a productive Haines.
The 5-foot-10, 191-pound forward suffered a concussion during a game on Nov. 25. He missed all of December and returned Jan. 6.
Reading was in a funk when Haines got injured. The game in which he got hurt was the Royals' fourth loss in what would become a nine-game losing streak. Back in the saddle, Haines looks to play his part in leading Reading back to the ECHL playoffs.
"Other than the concussion I've been playing really well," he said. "I was out a month-and-a-half pretty much, but since then I've almost been a point-per-game guy."
With 60 points, Wheeling (28-16-2), the ECHL affiliate of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Montreal Canadiens, leads the Atlantic Division and sits second in the Eastern Conference.
Based in the West Virginia panhandle city, the Nailers are playing a 10-game schedule of home games in Johnstown for the second season since the owners of the Johnstown Chiefs transferred the franchise to Greenville, S.C. The Nailers' future in the region is up in the air, though, as their owners, brothers Rob and Jim Brooks, are looking to sell the team.
The Nailers have three more games in Johnstown this season. The next is Friday, when they play host to the Elmira Jackals.