Portland, ME – The Portland Pirates are ready for the challenge of the playoffs as they prepared to open up their Atlantic Division Semifinal against the Providence Bruins at the Dunkin Donuts Center on Wednesday.
Prior to departing for Providence, the Pirates held a brisk, but light-mood practice at the Cumberland County Civic Center. For most in this group, it will be their first playoff experience at the AHL level as the Rochester Americans, the Buffalo Sabres prior affiliate, failed to make the playoffs last year.
“The guys are really excited,” said Pirates’ forward Mark Mancari. “The way we were acting (in practice) today you can see we’re really looking forward to tomorrow and starting the playoffs.”
The Pirates feel at this time of the season they’ve got as good of a chance as any team to make a run for the Calder Cup. Once they made it to the final 16 teams they can wipe the slate clean and start over.
Against the Bruins, especially in the playoffs, the Pirates have had a high-level of success.
Last season, Providence was the top ranked team in the AHL (55-18-3-4) with 117 points and stared the Pirates down in the Atlantic Division Final. The Pirates – under the Anaheim Ducks banner – were 4-4-0-2 against the Bruins in the regular season and found themselves down 0-2 in the playoff series, dropping both games in Providence, but the Pirates, coming back to the Civic Center, found their legs and powered through the Bruins in four straight, taking the series, 4-2. Providence has never defeated the Pirates with Kevin Dineen as Head Coach.
“We’re ready to work extremely hard,” said Mancari. “We’ve played Providence a lot this season and we know their systems and they know ours. The hard working team will win the game and the series.”
This season has been better for the Pirates overall in the wins column against the Bruins, but at the end of the day they still finish .500 (5-2-0-3) against them in 10 games this season.
“We’ve got our hands full,” said Dineen. “They’ve got a certain advantage with home ice and that’s a hard up hill battle for us to play against.”
Both team match up very well up front with their forwards as both teams have skilled forwards who can score. The Pirates boast the top two rookie forwards in the AHL, Tim Kennedy and Nathan Gerbe.
Kennedy led all rookies in points (67) and assists (49) during the regular season and Gerbe led rookies in goals (30) with 56 points in 57 games. Gerbe was named as the AHL’s Outstanding Rookie and joined Kennedy as part of the AHL All-Rookie team.
The Bruins have a lethal trio in Mikko Lehtonen, Martin St. Pierre and rookie Brad Marchand.
The edge for the Bruins has to be on the blueline where they have the AHL’s Outstanding Defenseman patrolling the backend in Johnny Boychuk.
Boychuk finished second in team scoring for the Bruins with 65 points (20g, 45a) with a plus-19 rating in 78 games.
The Pirates know their success will depend on getting to Bruins’ goalie Tuukka Rask.
Rask, hasn’t faired well against Portland in the past, including this season where he has a 3.45GAA and a .883 save percentage in seven games versus the Pirates.
“We need to find a way to get to Rask,” said Dineen. He’s an extremely good goaltender when he’s on his game.”
The Pirates did receive help from their parent club in Buffalo as Chris Butler was sent back to Portland yesterday after the Sabres cleaned out their locker rooms. The Sabres’ failed to make the playoffs, now putting the focus on Portland to perform for the organization.
Butler didn’t expect to miss a beat despite not skating for the Pirates since late December when he was recalled.
“I’m excited,” said Butler. “It’s a fun team and I almost forgot what a great group of guys and how well everyone got along.”
“It’s the most exciting time for any team.”
Butler was recalled on Dec. 27 and only expected to be with Buffalo for three games, but he made such an impression on the Sabres’ coaching staff that he stuck with the team through the rest of their season. In 47 games, he scored two goals, four assists for six points, but the more impressive stat was being ranking second in the team for plus/minus with a plus-11 rating, which led all defenseman on the Sabres.
He credited a lot of his success to being paired with Craig Rivet.
“I couldn’t have asked for anything better,” he said. It’s an experience I’ll remember for a long time.”
“It made life that much easier. I knew no one was going to come after me with a partner like that,” he joked in reference about Rivet.”
To make room for Butler in the lineup, the Pirates released Matt Macdonald from his PTO. In 55 games, Macdonald scored one goal, five assists for six points and was a -11 in plus/minus rating.
The Pirates still have eight healthy defensemen.
NOTES: The Portland Pirates will make a significant announcement on Tuesday, April 21. It’s speculated the Pirates will announce they’ve been awarded 2010 AHL All-Star Classic. The Pirates last held the All-Star Classic in 2003.