Flames set to begin AHL playoffs.
By: Aaron McCracken
Note: Listen to live coverage of all Flames' 1st round games at http://www.portlandpirates.com/pirateslive.asp. Thursday and Friday's games start at 7:30 p.m. (ADT), or 4:30 p.m. "Calgary time".
The Saint John Flames begin their 2001 Calder Cup run tonight at home against the Portland Pirates. The expectations are high for the Flames after producing their most successful regular season in history and setting franchise records for wins (44) and points (100).
Despite finishing 5th in the New England division, the Pirates are a formidable opponent. They are one of the few teams in the league that had to fight for a playoff spot, eventually clinching in their final game. While the team has struggled defensively all year, mid-season goaltender acquisition Corey Hirsch played well down the stretch, finishing with a 17-17-2 record and a 2.91 GAA. The veteran of over 100 NHL games is one of number of experienced players on a squad that features three former Calder Cup winners. Portland's "run-and-gun" style of hockey and is led by three very strong centres including Mark Murphy (70 points), Jeff Nelson (55 points), and Terry Yake (49 points). Nelson was a league low -32 on a Portland team that did not have a regular player in the plus category.
The Flames are, by contrast, a very different team. Saint John is the best even strength team in the AHL and plays a tight-checking neutral zone trap. The squad is one of the youngest in professional hockey and features a tight-knit group of players that have all played together since training camp (which the exception of Marty Murray and Doug Doull). The Flames have a very deep line-up that features 15 players with 20 or more points. They are led by a trio of centres that all spent time in the NHL this season: Marty Murray (76 points), Benoit Gratton (46 points), and Daniel Tkaczuk (36 points). The Flames will look to eight-year veteran Martin Brochu (27-19-5, 2.60 GAA) to keep the puck out of the net, although rookie Levente Szuper (16-10-2 2.50 GAA) could also see some time if Brochu struggles.
Keys to the series
If the Flames can play their system for 60 minutes and stay out of the penalty box, this series should be over in three games. Saint John has a significant advantage in depth and scoring talent, which will work to their advantage in even-strength situations.
The Flames cannot afford to run in to penalty trouble against Portland (pay attention Miika Elomo, Darrel Scoville, and Dave Roche!). The Pirates power play often uses five forwards and is one of the best in the league. The Flames also need to control the pace of the game and not let the contest turn in to a "run-and-gun" battle. Saint John has won this season by keeping the shot count down and controlling the game for 60 minutes, something that should not be changed during the playoffs.
The Pirates will rely on their veteran leaders to keep the team focused and on goaltender Corey Hirsch to stop 35+ shots per game. The Pirates look to play the role of spoiler, something which they a victim of last season during their 100 point season.
Scheduling difficulties in Portland have led to the three of the first four games being played in Saint John, something that will play to the Flames favour. The Flames have the best home record in the AHL and a chance to put the series away early. Still, the Flames need to take the Pirates seriously, especially considering that the Pirates won the season series.
The bottom line is that the Flames need to come out strong and take control early in the 1st game. If they are successful, the Flames should easily win the series.
Saint John Flames vs. Portland Pirates Series Facts
GAME 1: THU., APRIL 12 @ SAINT JOHN - 6:35 p.m.
GAME 2: FRI., APRIL 13 @ SAINT JOHN - 6:35 p.m.
GAME 3: SUN., APRIL 15 @ PORTLAND - 2 p.m.
GAME 4: TUE., APRIL 17 @ SAINT JOHN - 6:35 p.m.*
GAME 5: THU., APRIL 19 @ PORTLAND - 7:05 p.m.*
(* if necessary)
Records: Saint John (44-24-7-5, 100 points) vs. Portland (34-40-4-2, 74 points).
Season Series: Portland won the season series 4-3, with one game ending in a tie.
Playoff History: The Flames went to the Calder Cup final three years ago. Two years ago, they lost the Division final to Fredericton, and last season, they were swept by Lowell in the 1st round. The Pirates were also beaten in the 1st round last season, despite having the 3rd best overall record. Portland won the Calder Cup in 93-94.
Head to Head History: This is the third postseason series between the two teams. Portland beat the Flames in seven games to win the 1996 Eastern Conference Championship. Saint John defeated the Pirates in six games during the 1998 Playoffs.
Forward 1: Murray - Varlamov - Botterill
Forward 2: Gratton - Roche - Fata
Forward 3: Tkaczuk - Clark - Begin
Forward 4: Betts - Elomo - Doull
Defense 1: Walser - Martin
Defense 2: Scoville - Mrozik
Defense 3: Dupont - St. Croix
Reserves: Royer, Montador, Szuper (Goalie).
Injured: Tkaczuk (head, probable), Botterill (hamstring, probable), Martin (foot, probable), Corupe (Groin, out).
Forward 1: Murphy / Bekar / Emma
Forward 2: Nelson / Pettinger / Church
Forward 3: Yake / Hilnca / Barch
Forward 4: Sotherby / Corrinet / Forster
Defense 1: Ficenic / Farrell
Defense 2: Melanson / Boileau
Defense 3: Fortin / Rohloff
Reserves: Bell, Shirreffs, Yonkman, Charpentier (back-up goalie), Cruickshank (3rd goalie). Glen Metropolit is on recall to Washington, and is the only Capital eligible to join the Pirates in the AHL playoffs. Derek Schultz is playing in the ECHL playoffs.
Injured: Murphy (Groin, probable), Peat (Groin, out). Former Flame Jamie Huscroft recently retired from hockey following a serious concussion.
Saint John: Dave Roche is the only Flame with significant NHL experience. Marty Murray and Martin Brochu are minor league playoff veterans. Brochu, Benoit Gratton, Miika Elomo, and Rick Mrozik all played multiple seasons with the Pirates.
Portland: Centre Terry Yake (400 games) and goaltender Corey Hirsch (100 games) both have significant NHL experience. Yake won the Calder Cup in 90-91 with Springfield and the Turner Cup with Denver in 94-95. Jeff Nelson won the Calder Cup with the Pirates in 93-94, while Dean Melanson won the Cup with Rochester in 95-96.
Portland rookies Stephen Peat and Matt Pettinger both spent time with the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL. Derek Schulz was a 3rd round pick of the Flames in 1997, while Steve Sheriffs was a 9th round pick in 1995 and was traded for current Flame Benoit Gratton.
By the Numbers
Saint John: The Flames have the best home record in the AHL and lead the league in both shots for and fewest shots allowed per game. Their power play (18.0%, 10th overall), and penalty kill (80.9%, 17th overall) have improved over the season, but still aren't great. The Flames have struggled in overtime, winning only 2 games, while losing 5 and tying 7 contests.
Portland: The Pirates have one of the best overtime records in the league (6-2-4), which reflects their "run and gun" style of play. This could change in the playoffs however, as overtime is played 5-on-5. Portland has one of the best power plays in the league (20.9%, 2nd overall), and a reasonably solid penalty kill (81.3%, 13th overall).