PORTLAND – Having finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference, you might not expect to hear the Portland Pirates talking like underdogs entering the Calder Cup semifinals.
Seeing as the Hershey Bears have a loaded lineup and have steamrolled through the playoffs with eight straight wins, the Pirates foresee a formidable challenge ahead Wednesday when they open their best-of-seven series. It will be the first appearance in the conference finals for the Pirates since 1996.
“Hershey is loaded for bear is what they are,” said Dineen, laughing at the obvious pun. “They have a lot of bodies. They’re healthy. They haven’t played in awhile. So they’re very well rested. We’re going to have our hands full, but that’s what we’re used to.”
The Pirates had the best record in the conference with a team record 53 wins and 114 points. Hershey was second in its division with 44 wins and 103 points, but Portland went 1-3 against Hershey in the regular season.
“They owned us pretty well in the first series,” said Dineen. “They gave it to us pretty good in their building. The other two games, we won one and we could have won another. This is maybe the first time this year that we’ve gone into a situation where we may be the underdog, but the underdog on the bottom has as much fun as the dog on top. We don’t mind being the underdog.”
The drama of this series in heightened by the fact that Washington’s new affiliate is stocked with former Pirates. There are over a dozen, including Graham Mink, J.F. Fortin, Owen Fussey, Louis Robitaille and Jakub Cutta.
“It’s going to be something special,” said Portland forward Garrett Bembridge. “It’s going to be a battle right from the drop of the puck in the first game.”
Hershey had seven with more than 20 goals, including Tomas Fleischmann (30-33-63), Colin Forbes (21-30-51) and Mink (21-19-40). Kris Beech (26-38-64) is the Bears top scorer, and also has four goals and six assists in the playoffs. Goaltender Frederic Cassivi played with many of the current Pirates last year in Cincinnati. He had a 34-19-6 record with a 2.59 goals against in 61 regular-season games. He’s 8-0 with a 1.67 goals against and two shutouts in the playoffs.
“This is going to be a really tough challenge for us,” said forward Pierre Parenteau. “They’ve got a great hockey team. They’ve got a lot of depth. They’ve got really good “D” men. Their goalie, I played with him the last two years. He’s a really good goalie. It’s going to be a really good challenge, and it’s going to be a great series.”
Once again the Pirates have a series juggled by scheduling conflicts. The circus booked at the Giant Center next week has forced Game 5 and 6 to be in Portland. Should a Game 7 be needed, it would be in Hershey.
“We were able to stickhandle around that and were able to get our first two games at home, which we thought was really important,” said Dineen. “That’s what we’ve done and will try to take advantage of that home ice. Guys will get the extra days of rest here instead of that long travel to Hershey.”