March 11, 2010

Pirates' defense becomes strength

PAUL BETIT

— By

Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — With the American Hockey League playoffs under way, it looks as though the defense has jelled at just the right time for the Portland Pirates.

During the regular season, 15 defensemen played for the Pirates as they tried to cope with a rash of injuries and call-ups to the Buffalo Sabres. Call-ups cost the Pirates the services of four defensemen.

''We've gone through many guys this year (on defense), but now I think just at the right time we've got eight capable guys who can play,'' said Portland assistant coach Eric Weinrich. ''No matter who's in there, I think everybody, from the (coaching) staff down, feels comfortable about who is on the back end.''

''Finally we've kind of come into our own as a corps,'' said Mike Kostka, the only defenseman who played in all 80 games during the regular season. ''For a while there it was kind of tough to get some chemistry. Finally, we're set with the corps of defensemen that we're going to have, and we're starting to feel a lot more comfortable playing together.''

That comfort factor showed Wednesday night when the Pirates won 3-0 over the Providence Bruins at the Dunkin' Donuts Center to open the best-of-seven Atlantic Division semifinals.

The Pirates hope to continue their solid defensive play in Game 2 tonight before returning to Portland for Game 3 on Sunday.

''The bar is set pretty high now,'' said Marc-Andre Gragnani, one of only three defensemen who has been with the Pirates since the start of the season. ''You can't get a shutout in every game. But I hope in Game 2 we can keep it going. We know we can do it.''

The addition of Chris Butler, reassigned to the Pirates earlier this week after playing 47 games with Buffalo, solidified the defense.

Geoff Waugh, a veteran picked up in a trade with the Binghamton Senators, Dennis Persson, the Sabres' first-round pick in the 2006 draft, and Matt Generous, signed to an amateur tryout contract after finishing his collegiate career at St. Lawrence, have been added to the defensive mix in recent weeks.

''What we have is a level of depth that give us a lot of options in case of injuries or issues that come up during the course of the season,'' said Pirates Coach Kevin Dineen.

The Pirates played almost 30 games with just five defensemen instead of six, Dineen said.

The new depth puts the Pirates in a much better position for the playoffs.

''You like to think we're going to be busy for a while, and you're going to need every single player,'' Dineen said.

NOTES: In Game 1, Gragnani was paired with rookie Paul Baier, and the tandem was on the ice for all of Portland's goals. Matt Macdonald, a defenseman who played 55 games for the Pirates, returned to the ECHL in time to help the Cincinnati Cyclones edge the Wheeling Nailers 4-3 and even their best-of-seven Kelly Cup series at 2-2 Wednesday night.

Staff Writer Paul Betit can be contacted at 792-6424 or at:

pbetit@pressherald.com

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