SACO

Mike McKenna has seen a lot from behind his goalie mask in the past 10 years. He’s played for 14 professional hockey teams at three levels following a four-year NCAA career at St. Lawrence University.

So when McKenna said Wednesday that what he witnessed from his goal crease last weekend in the Portland Pirates’ final game of the season was unique, it was enough for a double-take.

Setting the scene, the Pirates needed a win or a loss in either overtime or a shootout against the Worcester Sharks — in Worcester — to earn the eighth and final playoff position in the American Hockey League’s Eastern Conference. The Pirates trailed, 4-2, to begin the third period. The final score? Portland 5, Worcester 4. The Pirates played on.

“Winning a game like we did in Worcester the other night was something that, looking back on it, I can’t really remember being a part of something like that where, (down) two goals, season on the line, and then, you score the fifth one, and everyone knows we’re going to playoffs. It’s one of the most exciting moments of my career.”

Yes, McKenna said. Of his career.

“I’ve been in battles to make playoffs before, but never really down to the wire like that,” McKenna reiterated.

There’s a first time for everything, even for league veterans. And while this won’t be McKenna’s first foray into a professional hockey postseason, it will be the first extra season for a handful of the Pirates’ younger players, many of whom suffered through a dismal season a year ago, one that included home games 35 miles north in Lewiston and the worst win-loss record in the Pirates’ history.

“I’ve talked to a lot of those guys individually,” Pirates coach Ray Edwards said. “I just said, ‘Hey, good job.’ As you know, last year was tough. Those guys that were here last year, for them to be able to come back, get their mind right, and find a way to get to the postseason was just an incredible job. We were the last team in the league last year, and we had a handful of those guys back again this year. They came into the season with a real chip on their shoulder and wanted to prove they were better than that.”

“We put that behind us pretty quick,” Pirates forward Jordan Szwarz said. “It was a tough year, and this year has been a complete 180 from that. It’s been really fun, there’s a great group of guys here again, and to see the success we’ve had this year shows the talent that this organization has coming through the pipes.”

In addition to bringing back young veterans like Szwarz, Brendan Shinnimin, Jordan Martinook, Phil Lane and Lucas Lessio, the Pirates signed AHL veterans Alexandre Bolduc, Evan Oberg, Andrew Campbell and McKenna, hoping to rebound from a 24-39-3-10 season in which the team finish last among the AHL’s 30 teams.

“We brought those guys in in part to help the guys move on,” Edwards said. “I feel like they did that.”

“I said earlier in the year, maybe back in November, that we were still learning how to win,” McKenna said, “and even though I wasn’t here last year, you could still tell that there was that bit of an undercurrent of unsureness, but … I’d say by Thanksgiving or so we started to get rolling. I don’t think anyone’s even thought of it since, beyond knowing what that’s like and not wanting to repeat it.”

Portland bettered its win total this year by 15, and finished 39-28-7-2, one point better than the Springfield Falcons.

The Pirates’ reward for earning a playoff position is a first-round series against division rival and No. 1 seed Manchester. The Monarchs, the top affiliate of the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings, won 50 games this year, including nine of 12 against Portland.

“Other than the one blowout, the games have all been tight,” Edwards said. “A defending play here, a scoring chance there, a turnover here or there, the margin is small so we’re going to have to find a way to turn those opportunities around. The last four games were all one-goal games.”

In the past four meetings, Portland won one and lost one each in regulation, overtime and in a shootout.

“You can expect guys to kick it up another notch here,” Szwarz said. “Manchester is a team we’re obviously very familiar with. We know how they play. You look at all the games against them this year, they’re all fairly close games.”

Manchester boasts the top point-scorer in the AHL in Brian O’Neill, whose 80 points were 10 better than former Pirate Andy Miele of Grand Rapids. Portland’s top point-getter is Bolduc at 52 points.

Former Montreal Junior (QMJHL) standout Jean- Francois Berube leads Manchester in the cage this season with a 2.18 GAA and .913 save percentage, good for seventh in the league. McKenna is tops on the Pirates with a 2.24 GAA and .926 save percentage.

Game 1 of the best-of-5 series is tonight in Manchester.

Game 2 is set for Saturday, also in Manchester, with Game 3 slated for Sunday in Portland. If necessary, Game 4 will be April 30, and Game 5 on May 2.

“Manchester’s clearly a very skilled team that plays well, and we’ve got to respect that,” McKenna said. “But in the same sense, I was with Springfield last year, the No. 2 seed, Manchester was the No. 1 last year, out in the first round. You just never know.”

According to Edwards, winning the series and prolonging the season would be good not only for his team, but for the city. These games will be the Pirates’ last games as an affiliate of the Arizona Coyotes, who will affiliate next season with Springfield. Portland will be affiliated with Florida beginning in the fall.

“We know this group of coaches and players and trainers and equipment managers won’t be part of the Portland Pirates, and we want to be remembered in a good way,” Edwards said. “I think making the playoffs was real good, sort of erase last year, and now we have the opportunity to do more, and that’s what we’d like to do.”


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