The Florida Panthers 2015-16 campaign officially came to an end last week, but don’t fret, there’s still plenty of hockey left to watch before you pack up your sweaters and hit the beach this summer.
In Portland, the Pirates recently kicked off their first round 2016 Calder Cup Playoff series with the Hershey Bears, splitting the first two games of their best-of-five matchup at Cross Insurance Arena.
Now, as Panthers fans turn their attention to Florida’s minor-league affiliate, the Pirates will head to Hershey for the remainder of the series, beginning with Game 3 on Thursday night at Giant Arena.
“The more excitement we can get, the better,” Pirates forward Shane Harper recently told FloridaPanthers.com. “The more fans we have, the better.”
This is the second time that Portland and Hershey have ever met in the Calder Cup Playoffs. The only other meeting was in the 2006 Eastern Conference Final, which went the full seven games before an overtime goal from now-Penguins forward Eric Fehr clinched the series for the Bears.
The minor-league affiliate of the Washington Capitals, this year’s Hershey team boasts a substantial number of highly-gifted players on offense, including center Jakub Vrana, a first-round pick in 2014, and veteran left winger Chris Borque, who was named the AHL’s most valuable player during the regular season.
“They’re pretty potent offensively,” Harper said of the Bears. “That’s something that we have to be aware of in this series. You have to play smart against them, you can’t let them get odd-man rushes, and they have a really good power play as well.”
In Game of 1, however, it was the Pirates offense that took center stage, with Harper and veteran forward Rob Schremp netting two goals each to help lead Portland to a 6-4 victory over the Bears.
Harper and Schremp scored 11 seconds apart at 3:12 and 3:23 of the third period, respectively, setting a new franchise record for the fastest two goals scored by the Pirates during a playoff game.
In Game 2, a rebound goal from Vrana at 8:07 of the third period helped lift the Bears to a 3-1 victory over the Pirates, evening up the series at one game apiece.
“Getting a win in our first game was huge,” said Harper, who tallied 12 goals and 25 assists in 59 games during the regular season. “The second game, we didn’t play the way we wanted to, but that’s the way the playoffs go.
“You’re not going to win every game, obviously. Having the series tied going [to Hershey] is exciting. It’s going to be fun to play here. It’s always an exciting place to play. As for the mood in the locker room, we’re just excited.”
As they look to capture their second Calder Cup in franchise history and first since 1994, the Pirates were also excited to receive a few substantial reinforcements from their friends in South Florida, as forwards Logan Shaw and Greg McKegg, as well as defenseman Mike Matheson, were assigned to Portland on Wednesday. With these latest additions to their lineup, the Pirates now possess 10 skaters that suited up in at least one game for the Panthers this season.
“It definitely helps to get those guys back,” Harper said. “Shaw and (McKegg) both have some experience [in the AHL playoffs] and Matheson was playing really well when he was up with the Panthers. It’s only going to help us. It’s not going to interrupt our chemistry; they’re going to hop right in [to the lineup]. They’re a part of this team and we’re excited to have them back.”
With a healthy mix of minor-league veterans and top prospects, the Pirates will have a great opportunity to take a 2-1 lead in their Atlantic Division Semifinal series on Thursday night in what is expected to be a hard-fought Game 3. After that, Game 4 will be on Saturday night, April 30, at 7:00 p.m., with Game 5, if necessary, on Sunday afternoon at 5:00 p.m.
It’s time to grab your parrots and peg legs, Panthers fans.
A new playoff run is starting in Portland, and it’s #AllHandsOnDeck.