At the end of day too many things were stacked against the Portland Pirates going into the playoffs, although they wouldn’t use that as an excuse, it was an uphill battle from the start until the final horn sounded.
The regular season was considered a success for Portland as they reached the century mark for only the fourth time in franchise history, but the Calder Cup playoffs left an open wound that will take some time to heal after getting knocked out of the first round in four straight games by the Manchester Monarchs.
“We’re all in shock,” said Pirates’ defenseman Joe DiPenta. “It’s starting to sink in, and it kind of stings. We’re in a little bit of denial we’re in this situation now. The season’s over and I think we’re all caught off guard.”
“It was the shortest playoff that we could have possible had four games in five days and we’re done.”
Portland finished the regular season as the number two seed in the Atlantic Division, and was expected to beat the Manchester Monarchs. Instead, it was the Monarchs who would go on to sweep the Pirates, something not done since 2001 when the Pirates lost 3-0 to the Saint John Flames.
“Things happen pretty quick,” said Pirates’ head coach Kevin Dineen. “It happened in the wrong direction for our hockey team. When you play an 80-game schedule and you’re used to playing the game a certain way, you’re use to dictating the pace, and all of a sudden what we’re doing isn’t working, we tried to make adjustments and the next thing we’re reacting to our opponent.”
The Pirates offense was non-existent in the series against the Monarchs. In four games, the Pirates only managed to score five goals, but only two were even-strength. A large factor was the play of goaltender Jonathan Bernier, who the AHL’s goalie of the year. During the series, he had a 1.24GAA with a .962 save percentage.
It left the Pirates scratching their head trying to find ways to get pucks into the net.
“Give them credit,” said Dineen. “Manchester played a heck of a series, and obviously one of our strengths during the regular season was scoring goals and that wasn’t happening during the playoffs.”
“The more you push, the more you press and that means you are giving (scoring chances) up on the other end, and obviously it came back and bit us.”
The Pirates lack of scoring can be spread across the lineup.
For much of the last month of the season, the Pirates were without Tyler Ennis, who was with the Buffalo Sabres. The AHL’s rookie of the year led all rookies in goals (23), assists (42) and points (65) and was in the top-10 at the time of his recall to the Sabres.
That being said, the Pirates still had plenty of offensive scoring in the lineup, starting with Nathan Gerbe and Mark Mancari, however neither could find their rhythm during the series.
“I should have had a better series,” said Mancari. “I should of… I could have produced more and help the team more and hopefully get some more offense. I think we tried to change our game a little too much. We worried about trying to get under (Manchester’s) skin and things like that.”
At the other end of the ice, the Pirates relied too much on their defense to bail them out of situations.
More than once the Pirates defense turned the puck over, leaving netminder JP Lamoureux to make a spectacular save after spectacular save to keep the game close.
While the losses were not Lamoureux fault, it leaves one to wonder, if the defense would have turned the puck less frequently if Jhonas Enroth was in net.
Enroth was stellar for the Pirates this season, going 28-18-1 with 2.37GAA and .919 save percentage until he suffered an ankle injury back on Mar. 13, and wouldn’t have been ready until the second round of the playoffs.
Despite the losses of Enroth and Ennis, Dineen was quick to point out it was the losses of defensive depth that ultimately hurt the team.
“We can obviously point to Tyler (Ennis) and Jhonas (Enroth) as big losses, but for me in a series like we just had the loss of Matt Generous or Dennis Persson was a very large factor for us,” he said. “(The Monarchs) were very effective against our defensive group and there were players that I relied on a lot, specifically Mike Weber that logged too many minutes out there.”
“Certainly our defensive depth caught up to us.”
It’s loss that will eat at the Pirates all summer, more so than in years past because expectations were so much higher, but lessons will be learned as players move on, and when the new cast arrives in September they will be able to close this chapter on Portland Pirates lore.