February 1, 2012

'Just average' Portland Pirates seeking consistency

Injuries and frequent call-ups led to an up-and-down first half, but the playoffs remain within reach.

By Paul Betit pbetit@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Will the real Portland Pirates hockey team please stand up.

click image to enlarge

The Pirates began the season with seven AHL rookies on their roster, including Andy Miele, above. Miele is second on the team in scoring with 32 points.

2012 Press Herald File

THREE KEY AREAS TO IMPROVE

1. On The Road: The Pirates will play 18 of their remaining 32 games away from the Cumberland County Civic Center, so they will need to play better than they have been on the road. Currently, Portland, with its 8-8-1-3 road record, ranks 23rd among the AHL's 30 teams. By comparison, the St. John's Ice Caps, the Atlantic Division leader, are 17-2-2-1 when playing away from Mile One Centre in Newfoundland.

2. Power Play: In recent weeks, there has been a steady decline in the Pirates' success rate in man-up situtations. Currently, Portland's power play ranks 25th in the league with a success rate of 15.5 percent (34 for 220). The Hershey Bears, the East Division's second-place team, have scored on 29.6 percent of their power plays (60 for 203). The Pirates also share the AHL lead by allowing eight short-handed goals.

3. Penalty Kill: The Pirates have allowed 43 goals in 213 short-handed situations (79.8 percent) to rank 23rd among the AHL's 30 teams in killing penalties. The Abbotsford Heat, who are fighting for a playoff berth as the third-place team in the West Division, have a league-best kill rate of 86.6 percent (27 for 201).

Is it the squad that struggled to stay above .500 during the first three months of the season?

Or is it the team that reeled off four consecutive wins during a six-day span last month to move into second place in the AHL's Atlantic Division for a few days?

Or is it the team that lost three games over one weekend in early January?

The answer to all three of those questions could be yes, and that's not good.

Inconsistency has been a hallmark of the Pirates this season, and head coach Ray Edwards takes personal responsibility for it.

"Whether it's injuries, call-ups, chemistry, there's a million excuses as to why," he said, "but at the end of the day the coach has got to get it done."

During the first half of the season, Edwards had to make constant adjustments to his lineup because of injuries and call-ups by the Phoenix Coyotes, the Pirates' NHL parent. When the season started, the team's two leading scorers, Brock Trotter and Brett MacLean, weren't even on the roster.

"You can dissect it any way you want," Edwards said. "There's a lot of reasons why, but it comes down to getting the group you have to get the job done."

Asked to give the AHL team a letter grade for its play going into this week's all-star break, Edwards said the Pirates deserve no more than a B.

"B is just average to me," he said. "I think we've been just average. Our goaltending has been OK. Our defense has been OK. Our forward group has been OK. None of it jumps off the page as being great."

The Coyotes' upper management doesn't seem surprised.

"We knew coming (into the season) we had some younger players," said Brad Treliving, Phoenix's assistant general manager. "You always want to be better, but it's a big jump."

When the season started, Portland's lineup included seven players in their first AHL season and three in their second AHL season.

Last season, nine of the current Pirates played for the San Antonio Rampage, the Coyotes' AHL affiliate for the previous six seasons, and that team had one of the best records in the AHL right up until the Christmas break in 2010. After that, injuries piled up in both Phoenix and San Antonio, and the organization didn't have enough depth to deal with it.

Injuries have continued to be a problem this season for both the Coyotes and the Pirates, but Phoenix now seems to be in a better position to handle them.

Three weeks ago, the Coyotes added Patrick O'Sullivan and Cal O'Reilly, two high-end forwards, and David Rundblad, a slick Swedish defenseman, to the Portland roster.

Two weeks ago, Alexandre Bolduc, a hard-nosed center, played his first game for the Pirates after missing the first half of the season while recovering from shoulder surgery.

This past week, the Coyotes sent veteran center Marc-Antoine Pouliot and defenseman Maxim Goncharov back to the Pirates.

"Those guys are here in a large portion because finally we've gotten healthier at the top," Treliving said. "I think we're starting to see right now a lot of the components (here) that we thought would be in place three months ago."

It's not too late for the Pirates, who, despite their inconsistent play, remain in contention for one of eight Eastern Conference playoff spots.

One spot goes to each of the three division champions. The other five are filled by the remaining teams with the most points, regardless of which division they play in.

With 32 games left in the regular season, the Pirates, currently in fourth place in the Atlantic Division, are tied with the Connecticut Whale for the eighth playoff spot.

But Edwards expects his team to do better than that.

"We're not winning a division, right now," he said. "We're not winning a conference, and, to me, the expectations (are) to be better than (eighth place)."

The Pirates have one of the AHL's best home-ice winning percentages, but they rank in the bottom third in road-winning percentage, power play and penalty kill.

With the players on a four-day break, Portland's coaching staff is looking at ways to improve the team for the stretch run.

"We've got four days to look at everything," Edwards said. "We'll look at our personnel. We'll look at what we need. We'll dissect it all and come up with a plan."

 

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

Twitter: PaulBetitPPH

 

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