November 9, 2011

AHL Journal: Waiting game benefits Pirates

By Dan Hickling

Unintended consequences? You might say that.

When the lords of the AHL acquiesced to the NHL's wishes and trimmed its schedule from 80 games to 76, it ridded the league of those dreaded four-games-in-five-days stretches.

On the other hand, it produced a few gaping holes in the timetable, such as the one that kept the Portland Pirates game sweaters in mothballs for eight long days.

Portland Pirates forward Ryan Hollweg (photo: Dan Hickling)

Little wonder, then, that when the Buccos ended their hiatus on Sunday, they did so by bombarding Manchester goalie Martin Jones with 25 first-period shots.

Talk about frisky. Talk about tired of practicing. Enough was clearly enough.

“It's pretty tough when you have eight days off,” said gritty forward Ryan Hollweg. “You have a little frustration, so you come out with a little (spit) and vinegar.

“Sometimes, when you have a week off like that, you're not sure what you're going to get. But we came out flying.”

Came out flying and stayed aloft, building a 2-0 first-period edge that paved the way for a 4-1 win.

“I don't think they want to have eight days (off),” said Pirates coach Ray Edwards. “I think the guys were ready to play a game. We'd like to build on that.”

Truth be told, the layoff couldn't have come at a better time.

The Pirates had dropped four of their previous five starts – with three of the losses before the home folks – and were looking positively listless.

“When we ended our last game before having all those days off, it was pretty tough,” said rookie forward Brett Hextall. “We had to develop some good work habits and get that battle mentality back that we had lost.”

Edwards said he used the time off the way any coach would whose team had been flailing. He worked them hard at the start, then pulled back on the throttle as the days rolled on.

“We weren't playing very well,” he said, “so we went back over the whole structure of how we play. Sort of the identity of who we are. So we had a tough three days (of practice).”

Hextall, one of several collegians among the Pirates, said the routine reminded him of his days at North Dakota.

“That's what we were telling some of the major junior guys,” he said. “In college, it was like that. Monday and Tuesday, you just hated practice because they were the hardest days, then it got easier. That's how we did it. So it was familiar for us college guys. Some of the other guys probably weren't too used to it.”

Portland won't have any more prolonged layoffs the rest of the way, and does have half-a-dozen three-in-threes (the AHL govs aren't ready to give those up) down the road.

Even so, the more leisurely regimen of the AHL is playing to positive reviews in the dressing room.

“I definitely think it's better,” said Hollweg. “There's no more our (games) in five nights like we had. You want that intensity to be in every game. I think by reducing the schedule and taking the four-in-fives out, you're going to increase the quality of the game. Especially towards the end of the year. It's going to keep guys a lot fresher and healthier. I think it's a great decision all away around.”

Around the AHL

The Pirates aren't the only the only team in the New England contingent with scheduled eight day layoffs. Bridgeport, Manchester and Providence will all be off between Dec. 18-26, and the P-Bruins have an additional nine-day hole coming up after the first of the year. …While their parents in Columbus have hit upon woeful times, the Springfield Falcons have welcomed high-scoring winger Alexandre Giroux back from the Blue Jackets. As well, NHL veteran defenseman Brett Lebda – late of the Toronto Maple Leafs – has signed a PTO with Springfield.

Dan Hickling can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.