October 21, 2010

Hockey Beat: Defense is young, but talented

By Paul Betit pbetit@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The American Hockey League season is less than two weeks old, and the Portland Pirates' young defensemen seem to be growing up in a hurry.

While winning five of their first six games, the Pirates have allowed just 15 goals to rank fourth in goals-against average among AHL teams that have played five or more games.

Portland is allowing fewer than three goals per game, which is good for a team with five defensemen who are rookies or playing only their second full AHL season.

"When you have such a young (defense) corps and a lot of new players, there tends to be a lot of pressure on them," Portland left wing Mark Mancari said. "I think every guy's handling it extremely well. Every guy's playing like a veteran and that makes a big difference."

The second-year defensemen include T.J. Brennan, Dennis Persson and Drew Scheistel. Alex Biega and Nick Crawford are in their first pro seasons.

"The can all make plays under pressure," said assistant coach Eric Weinrich, who played 18 NHL seasons as a defenseman. "It's something you really can't teach. It's just an ability they all have. We don't have a lot of big guys, but they can make up for that in smarts, and just their puck skills and skating ability."

The performance is especially noteworthy because Tim Conboy and Marc-Andre Gragnani, the team's two veteran defensemen, hadn't played in the same game until Tuesday night, when both skated regular shifts in the 3-2 shootout victory against Manchester.

Conboy, a veteran of eight pro seasons but in his first season with the Pirates, was back following a two-game absence due to an eye infection. Gragnani, in his third season with the Pirates, returned Saturday night after recovering from a knee injury that kept him off the ice for more than three weeks.

Their presence in the lineup can only make the defense better.

"(Gragnani) felt his way into it a little bit," said Portland Coach Kevin Dineen, after Gragnani helped the Pirates skate to a 4-2 victory against Springfield in his first game back.

"He's feeling strong since his injury has healed. You know, there's a little timing that goes into it. He certainly makes a difference on the power play, and he gives us good looks at the offensive end of things. The rest of his game will come in time."

 

GRAHAM MINK, a former Portland right wing, was named AHL player of the week for the period ending Sunday after collecting two goals and seven assists in four games with the Peoria Rivermen.

A veteran of 10 AHL seasons, Mink, who grew up in Stowe, Vt., played three seasons for the Pirates when the team was affiliated with the Washington Capitals.

Mancari, who scored five goals and had five assists for a team-high 10 points in the Pirates' first five games, also was nominated.

Hershey Bears right wing Brian Willsie, who scored 24 goals and 17 assists in the 2004-05 season for the Pirates, also was nominated.

 

THE PIRATES will host their third annual Breast Cancer Awareness Night, scheduled for Saturday at the Cumberland County Civic Center.

The game will be against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.

Tickets are priced at $15 each. When purchased online at www.portlandpirates.com or over the phone by calling 828-4665 ext. 317, $5 from each ticket sold will be donated to Making Strides Against Breast Cancer.

 

LUKE ADAM of the Pirates is leading AHL rookies in goals and total points.

Adam, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound center, has five goals and five assists, and shares the team scoring lead with Mancari.

 

BEN BISHOP, a former University of Maine goalie, averaged 33.4 saves per game while winning four of his first five starts to help the Peoria Rivermen, the AHL affiliate of the St. Louis Blues, get off to a 5-1 start.

 

Staff Writer Paul Betit can be contacted at 791-6424 or at: pbetit@pressherald.com

 

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