Pirates building for the postseason

Portland Pirates head coach Tim Army is an encyclopedia of his team’s season.

Ask him how his weekend was, and he might give you a 20-minute in-depth analysis of the pros and cons of the team’s latest three-games-in-three-nights set.

Ask him how the team is playing, and you are likely to get a description of the nuances of the Pirates’ specialty teams and his philosophy of three levels of attack.

Just past the halfway mark of the 2003-04 season, the Pirates find themselves in sixth place in the Atlantic Division. At 16-17-7-5, Army’s squad is just a scant two points out of the playoff picture. Goals have not come easily for the Pirates this season. They rank last in goals scored per game in the American Hockey League.

Army believes that stat can be overcome with a solid foundation.

“What we’ve tried to build here, no matter who is in our lineup, is an identity as a team,” Army said. “If we stick to that identity, we’ll have an opportunity to win every night. That’s what our game plan has to be.”

That identity is a “defense first” strategy that stifles the opposition and gives the low-scoring Pirates an opportunity to compete night in and night out, regardless of the opponent. The players have bought into the system heart and soul, and slowly, but surely, the Pirates have gradually become the team Army envisioned back in training camp — not high-scoring, but always defense-first and never-say-die.

“It takes a little bit of an adjustment period, just getting used to the system,” Pirates newly-minted captain Graham Mink said. “The guys here, they are intelligent hockey players. We work on Coach Army’s system every day, and it certainly gives us an opportunity to win a lot of games.

“We know we’re not going to score a lot of goals, and I don’t think we were comfortable with that early in the year,” continued Mink, who replaced Trent Whitfield as the team’s captain after Whitfield was recalled to Washington. “Now in a 0-0 game or 1-0 game going into the third period, I am very confident that our team can come through and pull it out.”

The Pirates have done just that. While sporting the league’s lowest goals-for tally this season, they also bring to the table one of the stingiest defenses in the league and have consistently ranked among the best on the penalty kill. Stricken by injuries and a revolving door of call-ups throughout the season, they have managed to stay in the hunt without many of the pieces they had anticipated when the season began.

With their parent club in Washington suffering from a man-shortage on the blue line, the Pirates saw many of their own defensive corps start the season and then remain in the nation’s capital. An injury to Capitals goaltender Sebastian Charpentier threatened the Pirates traditional strength in goal as netminders Maxime Ouellet and Rastislav Stana have taken turns serving as Olaf Kolzig‘s understudy. Brian Sutherby, Boyd Gordon, Steve Eminger, Trent Whitfield, Darcy Verot — all have spent some time with Washington or are currently there now.

To fill the voids, Army pulled recruits from wherever he could find them. Players like Mike Vigilante, Tim Branham and Mike Souza have all played prominent roles since their call-ups from lower leagues. Army and assistant coach Mark Kumpel have been able to fit the players to the system.

“Mike Vigilante is a guy that Tim and I knew before he got here, having coached him with USA Hockey,” said Kumpel. “He’s strong on the puck and very intelligent in his positioning.

“The knock on Mike Souza was that he wasn’t a good skater, but then the same was said about Graham Mink and he scored 20 goals plus in this league,” he continued. “We thought we could use someone with some offensive instincts. I think that was a great find by [general manager] Shawn Simpson, and a very intelligent move to bring him in.

“Tim Branham we knew from the Saint John Flames last year, and we thought he was a pretty good defenseman. He skates very well, he’s intelligent, and he can make the first pass out of the zone. Those guys have all been great finds and have contributed. And I don’t want to forget (goaltender) Matt Yeats. He finally signed his American Hockey League contract and he’s worked hard for that. Everybody who has come in here has bought into the team atmosphere that Tim and I try to create.”

“We’re trying to put together the right mixture, the right chemistry that makes us a good team,” Army said. “The best 20 players don’t always make the best team, but if you have a mixture of strengths, that together forms a real solid group.”

Heading into the second half of the season still very much in the hunt for a playoff spot, Army has finally gotten the highly skilled prospects he had expected to be part of the mix earlier in the season. On January 10, the Washington Capitals assigned one of their 2002 first-round selections Boyd Gordon to Portland. Two days later, Gordon was joined by Caps’ teammate and roommate Steve Eminger, also a 2002 first-round pick.

Eminger, 20, selected 12th overall in the 2002 draft, is described in the scouting reports as a “quick, effortless skater with a smooth stride, a smart passer with above average vision.” Gordon, the 17th overall pick, was described by TSN’s Bob MacKenzie as “not flashy, just an honest, solid player who competes every shift.” In his first professional season, the 20-year-old forward has impressed the Capitals’ organization with his maturity and exceptional work ethic. Thrown into the Pirates’ system mid-stream, both have proven quick studies.

“Here’s an example of two high-end first-round draft picks that other teams around the league have had in their lineups,” Kumpel said. “We have it now. With the addition of those two, our roster really moves close to everybody else’s. All of a sudden we look like a true development squad with high-end talent to work with.

“It really shows in the game,” he continued. “Steve Eminger played in a game after basically one practice. We basically took them in, drew our systems up on the wall for them, and they picked it right up. That’s the intelligence level and quality of these kids.

“Boyd Gordon flew in at one o’clock and then joined us when the game was almost in progress, you might as well say,” Kumpel said. “He made some spectacular reads in defensive zone for a young guy. He’s just a very, very intelligent hockey player. He skates, covers a lot of ice in a quick amount of time which allows him to get up into the offense but he takes care of the defensive tasks back in our end. It’s great to have a guy like that.”

Army has been equally impressed with the Pirates’ newcomers. Ever the teacher, Army feels the pair has as much to gain from their stint in the AHL as the team has to gain from the skills they bring to it.

“I think they are adjusting to the league. Whether you’ve played in the NHL or not, coming to the league, it’s a different experience,” Army said. “These guys have never played three games in three nights as professionals. Now, they’ve already done it twice.

“Both of them show an innate understanding of the game, an ability to play without the puck – a good intelligence without the puck,” he continued. “The biggest thing for them right now, and what they weren’t able to acquire playing with the Capitals, is those touches of the puck to round out their offensive game. That will come the more they play, and that’s why I think it is so important for a young player to be playing in the minor leagues because they are able to complete their game. They’re able to play in a lot of different situations offensively and defensively and become the players that the organization envisions for them when they are first drafted.”

Which brings Army back to the team’s “defense first” philosophy, one he hopes will lead the team back into the playoff hunt.

“You cannot play in the National Hockey League if you can’t play defense,” he said. “Guys have to learn to play that side of the puck. Our goal is to put the best group together that we can and put the best game plan together that allows us to compete and win.

“With that philosophy, we’re trying to be one of the five teams in our division to make the playoffs, and then once we get there, we want to chip away and win a round and build some momentum,” he said. “We’ve got a good group right now, and I think we’re more than capable of making the playoffs and that’s certainly our goal.”