After finishing dead last in the American Hockey League last season, the Portland Pirates squeaked into the eighth and final playoff position in the AHL’s Eastern Conference this season.
While the Pirates have been successful with veteran goaltender Mike McKenna and an experienced group on the blue line, it is talented forward prospects like Henrik Samuelsson that could push the Pirates to be a legitimate contender in the East this spring.
“We are in a playoff push right now,” Samuelsson said. “We got some players down from Arizona so it was nice to have almost our full team. I feel like we can get into the playoffs and make a push here.”
After back-to-back 30-goal seasons in the WHL with the Edmonton Oil Kings, along with last year’s Memorial Cup championship that included a five-point game in the final match, Samuelsson has turned some heads in his first full season of pro hockey in the AHL with Portland.
“Definitely more comfortable than at the start of the year,” Samuelsson said when asked how he’s adjusting to life as a pro. “It’s definitely a big jump from juniors to pro hockey so I’m just trying to get better each day and help this team make a playoff push.”
Samuelsson has used his 6-3, 208-pound frame efficiently on the forecheck and along the walls, but the former first round pick of the Arizona Coyotes in the 2012 NHL Draft also possesses the high-end skill to skate, puck-handle and shoot like a smaller, more offensively-skilled forward – a rare talent for a bigger forward to have.
Just 50 games into his pro hockey career, Samuelsson was awarded his first NHL call-up to the Coyotes where he made a special NHL debut at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers, where his father Ulf is an assistant coach.
“It was awesome. My first game was at MSG, so that was pretty special,” Samuelsson said, noting, “My whole family was there so it was awesome. You just see how good they are up there, it’s a level up from here definitely but I thought I handled myself pretty well in my first call up.”
Upon returning from a two-game stint in the NHL with Arizona, Samuelsson’s confidence in his game immediately showed. He tallied 10 points (4G-6A) in his first 11 games back with Portland, including two game-winning goals during a stretch where the Pirates as a team were dominant – 9-1-1-1 in 12 games in a one month period from February 28th to March 27th.
Finishing with 40 points (18G-22A) in 68 AHL games with Portland this season, Samuelsson realized the importance of the final games of the regular season, and that points are at a premium in the spring. He figures to be a key component to the rebuild of the Coyotes organization so getting him some extra pro playing experience this spring in the Calder Cup Playoffs could be the difference between him making the full-time jump to the NHL sooner rather than later.
“We just have to keep winning games,” Samuelsson said, adding, “We’ve been playing pretty well lately, so we have to keep it up and not take one game for granted because that could be the difference between making or not making the playoffs.”
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