- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Last weekend the Portland (Maine) Pirates, the Washington Capitals’ struggling top farm team, won consecutive games in regulation for only the second time this season.

That is noteworthy — and not just because it hadn’t happened since the first two games of the season. The American Hockey League eliminated draws in 2004-05, meaning games tied after regulation go to a five-minute overtime, followed by a five-man shootout that continues until one team wins.

The AHL is experimenting with this system on behalf of the NHL. For years, fans have voiced displeasure in paying a hefty ticket price and not seeing a game decided. The removal of tie games is not popular with players or management, but fans seem to find the shootouts exciting.

When the NHL owners aren’t locking out the players, the games feature five minutes of overtime but no shootout. During the regular season, games go into the book as a tie if no decision is rendered after OT; during the playoffs, play continues period after period until a winner is decided.

This has not been a banner season for the Pirates through the first half. Injuries have been a major problem, first plaguing the defensemen, then the forwards, then the defensemen again. Plus, the Pirates are one of the youngest clubs in the AHL, made up mainly of youngsters the Caps drafted in recent years or picked up during last season’s salary dump. There are veterans, but some are not carrying their share.

“You’re three games under .500 [15-18-3-4] after 40 games. Of course you’re not satisfied,” coach Tim Army snapped. “We’ve got a lot of young prospects, as many as any team in the league, and they’re all getting a chance to play in tough situations. And the league is the best it’s been in the three years I’ve been here for obvious reasons,” he said.

The lockout has prompted NHL teams to stock AHL clubs with as much talent as possible, keeping prospects close to home and playing.

But the maturing process appears to be a long one. The top forward, 28-year-old Trent Whitfield, has missed nine games and still leads the team in scoring. The top defenseman at the moment, Dwayne Zinger, also is 28 and has missed 19 games with a broken hand. That the older players have the edge right now proves experience trumps talent nearly every time.

Not everybody is floundering. Army recently put center Boyd Gordon, the only Pirate to play in every game, with wings Jakub Klepis and Tomas Fleischmann, a pair of Czech prospects, and the trio clicked immediately. Defenseman Jakub Cutta, who was getting possibly his last chance, is making it pay off with a good season. The best news of all is that defenseman Nolan Yonkman is back at full speed after two knee operations, “and that’s been a real positive for the team,” Army said.

On another front, Brian Petrovek, the managing owner of the Pirates, has had exploratory talks with civic officials in Worcester, Mass., concerning that city’s reasonably new arena, the DCU Center (formerly the Centrum), which loses its AHL team at the end of this season. Worcester is looking for a team for its building, and Petrovek is looking for a better deal than he gets from Portland.

Petrovek signed a two-year deal to lease the Cumberland County Civic Center in November 2003, but he wasn’t happy. The facility in downtown Portland is old and decaying and seats about 6,700 for hockey; the Worcester building seats more than 12,300 and is in a much larger market.

If the Pirates decide to move south, the Caps probably won’t be affected. Washington would continue to supply players to the minor league affiliate, only the travel time will be less and the name on the front of the sweaters will change. But leaving the Maine seacoast for an old northeastern industrial city might be a tough move for some.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide