PORTLAND – The Portland Pirates just might treat Sunday’s playoff game like a Game 7 at home.
When the circus wreaked havoc with the Pirates’ Calder Cup playoff schedule with Hartford, Portland agreed to start the series on the road, and have four straight games at home. It gives Portland a prime opportunity to clinch the series at home tonight in Game 6 and avoid a Game 7 scenario in Hartford on Wednesday. It is a gamble the Pirates hope to make pay off.
“That’s the exciting part,” said Pirates coach Kevin Dineen. “The games have flip-flopped back and forth – win, loss, win, loss, win. We’d like to break that pattern. We’ve got a game at home. The guys were tired and sore, and they’ve had two days to regroup. Hopefully, they’ll come out flying like they did (Thursday).”
The Pirates are 7-1 in Game 6’s and have won all four games when holding a lead in the series with a chance to clinch.
Portland took a 3-2 lead in the series with a strong 4-1 victory over Hartford Thursday. The days off between games, after playing the first four games in a span of five days, benefited the Pirates.
“We can build off that win,” said Pirate forward Zenon Konopka. “We worked pretty hard. That’s the name of the game. If we outwork them, we win.”
Portland won the battle of special teams in Thursday’s game. After being torched for eight power play goals in the first four outings, the Pirates blanked Hartford on five tries. Portland also had a pair of power play goals in the second period to break open a 1-1 game.
“You have to address those issues that have been at your heels,” said Dineen. “Certainly, penalty killing has hurt us. They’ve scored about 75 percent of their goals on the power play. When you’re getting beaten up that badly on the penalty kill, you’ve got to take care of it. It’s just comes down to a little bit of work. Guys are comfortable where they’re going. The players stood up. They know they had to kill and they did a great job.”
Though Hartford goaltender Chris Holt foiled Portland’s hopes in Game 4, facing 41 shots. The Pirates took advantage of its power play and also got a breakaway goal and a tally off some nice cycling work in the offensive zone. Konopka had two goals and an assist and has scored in 23 straight games. The Wolf Puck have tried to rough him up and get him off his game, but he’s only brought them further frustration.
“It tastes a little better when you have a guy following you around and you pop a few,” said Konopka. “It gets you in the game real quick when you have a target on you. They play a hard game. It’s a rough sport. You’ve got to be ready to get hit. That’s part of the game.”
Hartford’s frustrations boiled over late in Thursday’s game. As a result, defenseman Martin Grenier has been suspended for two games. He took down Simon Ferguson in the third period and then hit him in the head while he was on the ice.
Jim Mill, AHL vice president of hockey operations, said Grenier received the two games for being a repeat offender.
It forces Hartford to juggle its lineup again. With Dave Liffiton nursing an injured ankle, the Wolf Pack have just five healthy defensemen and may move Craig Weller from wing back to defense, as he did in the first round against Manchester.
“They never quit coming,” said Konopka. “So we’ve got to be ready to play. We’ve got to take it up one more notch. We had some bounces (Thursday), and we took advantage. We’re going to have to bring our work boots on Sunday.”
A Portland win would send them to the Calder Cup semifinals against Hershey, stocked with former Pirates. The Pirates could face a similar scheduling issue in a series with Washington’s new affiliate, since the circus is slated to occupy Hershey’s Giant Center from May 24-29.