Pirates look to get defense together in time for the playoffs

By Caitlin LoCascio
The playoffs are a month away. The postseason roster is set; the Washington Capitals have arguably given up on the team as far as this season is concerned; the Pirates are hanging on to the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with the skin of their teeth; and the defense might be in the worst shape of the season. If this were the movies, the Portland Pirates would be a shoo-in for the Calder Cup. Unfortunately, Emilio Estevez is now where to be seen, and it’s going to take a lot of hard work and a pinch of luck for the Pirates to make a run for it.

Defensive woes have been this season’s theme. Despite remarkable goal-scoring capabilities from nearly every member of the team, scoring four or five goals a night has not been securing enough wins. The arrival of goaltender Corey Hirsch helped to restore confidence, and there have been more patches of solid defensive work, but the team remains the most scored upon in the league.

The Portland Pirates announced their Playoff Clear Day Roster earlier this week. Currently, the defense consists of Patrick Boileau, Mike Farrell, Jakub Ficenec, Nathan Forster, Jean-François Fortin, Jamie Huscroft, Dean Melanson, and Todd Rohloff. There is the possibility of the addition of up to two players from the junior leagues and two more from Europe. This could include defensemen Steve Shirreffs returning from Finland and Michael Sivek from the Czech Republic, both of whom would be huge boosts for the roster.

Unfortunately, the return of Shirreffs and Sivek, or junior defensemen Jacub Cutta and Nolan Yonkman, are only possibilities, and the Pirates must be able to turn their current defense into a strong unit. It appears they have their work cut out for them.

Of the eight cleared defensemen, Patrick Boileau and Mike Farrell have been the most consistent and healthiest this season. Both have played in sixty-five plus games this season and neither have suffered any major injuries. Boileau has continued in his role of veteran leader and is usually paired with a rookie. With Tezikov gone, both he and Farrell are likely to be on the penalty kill more. Farrell has had a great first season with the Pirates, and in addition to solid defense, he has a talent for setting up plays. This has resulted in nearly twenty assists thus far, and the coaches moving him up to forward at one point. Farrell will be one to watch during the playoffs.

Jakub Ficenec and Todd Rohloff have both been slower finding their footing this season. Rohloff suffered a broken ankle early in the season, and did not return until January. He has ten points since then, and a decent plus minus (-2). And while it is hard to say what it is he is doing wrong, it is more a case of he just often times seems to not do anything at all. All players coming back from an injury take it slowly at first, and hold back more than they would normally, but it has been nearly three months now and he continues to play this way. Ficenec seems to be suffering from a lack of confidence, and has spent more than his fair share of games a healthy scratch this season. In the past month or so, he seems to have finally have more faith in himself, using his fabulous blue-line shot more, and has twenty four points in forty nine games. But then his linemate, Alexei Tezikov, was traded to Cincinnati earlier this week, and this has to be a huge blow to Ficenec. They have a wonderful chemistry, both on and off the ice, and really contributed to the team’s power play. The full effect of the Tezikov trade is yet to be seen, but it is a huge blow to Ficenec and will likely be evident.

Dean Melanson came to the Pirates earlier this week in exchange for Matt Herr, and appears he could be a huge asset for the team. He is a solid, physical veteran who has considerable playoff experience in his career. Now it all has to work on the ice with this team. Hopes are high, and rightly so, but time will tell if it is the right fit.

Jamie Huscroft was put on the roster, but it is not likely that he will actually play. He has been out with a concussion since October, and the likelihood of his return so small that he has returned to Washington to be with his family. In the unlikely chance that he can safely return, it would be a huge boost for the team. If not, there is some flexibility as the team can give the spot to a defenseman from the lower league affiliates.

Jean-François Fortin and Nathan Forster are definitely the weakest of the cleared defensemen. Though Coach Hanlon has taken a liking to second year Fortin, his promise has thus far only resulted in inconsistency and a lack of both playmaking skills and awareness. He has good size, and at only twenty-one, has time to work on his play, but as far as this season and post-season is concerned, he is not likely to make a huge contribution. He sat at much of the early season with a concussion, and then was sent down to the Richmond Renegades of the East Coast Hockey League earlier this winter to gain some more experience, and has now been called up due to trades and injuries. Nathan Forster simply has not seen much time with the Pirates and has not had a chance to develop his role on the team. In fifteen games earlier this season, he had two assists and was +2, but there just is not much for time for adjustment as the season nears an end.

The bottom line? The Pirates’ defense has their work cut out for them. But the team has proved many times this season that they cannot be counted out, and the return of Hirsch from Washington will boost confidence. The team has the talent, the goalscoring abilities and the chemistry; if they can get the defense on track, the playoffs could be full of some wonderful surprises for the Pirates.