Defense will be the name of the game as the Portland Pirates open the season on the road tonight against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
The Pirates are in their first season as the AHL affiliate of the Phoenix Coyotes, where defense and goaltending have provided the keys to whatever success the NHL team has had during the past two seasons. Phoenix was the sixth seed in the Western Conference playoffs last season.
“That’s the way this organization is,” said Portland Coach Ray Edwards. “We have to defend. We have to win tight games.”
The Pirates are an accurate of reflection of their new parent team.
Seven of the nine defensemen on Portland’s roster have at least one season of AHL experience, and the goaltending tandem of Justin Pogge and Curtis McElhinney is one of the league’s most experienced.
“We don’t have a starting goalie and a backup,” Edwards said. “It’s nice to know going in that you have some veteran guys, experience there.”
Pogge, in his sixth professional season, is impressed with the quality of players operating directly in front of him.
“Our (defense) is going to be one of the tops in the league,” he said.
“We’ve got a lot of veteran guys, a lot of experience back there, and they kind of control the tempo of the game.”
Dean Arsene, a veteran of 10 pro seasons, was named team captain Thursday. He said the Pirates are a well-rounded, balanced team.
“We’ve got a good group of guys who can play defense with sound fundamentals, but when it comes time, they can put the puck in the net,” he said. “There’s a lot of skill up front.
“Don’t get me wrong, we’re not a group that is just going to dump the puck in. We’ve got guys who can put the puck in the net.”
Nine players spent most of last season with the San Antonio Rampage, the Coyotes’ AHL affiliate for the previous four seasons.
The Rampage finished 40-33-4-3 last season, the second-highest win total in franchise history, but still failed to qualify for the playoffs.
“I played against them a lot last year when in Peoria,” Arsene said. “It was a battle every night.
“It was a hard-working group we didn’t always look forward to playing them because we knew it was going to get down and dirty and physical.”
During the two weeks of training camp, Arsene said the Pirates exhibited the same kind of solid work ethic he noticed last season.
“Anytime you can make teams not look forward to playing you, you can wear teams down over the course of a season and, hopefully, that can be part of our identity,” he said.
Staff Writer Paul Betit can be contacted at 791-6424 or at: [email protected]