Saturday, February 27, 2016

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins 3 at Portland Pirates 2 (SO, AHL) - February 26, 2016

The primary objective of the past winter has been to see as many AHL venues as possible. I visited Hershey and Utica as well as the five new rinks in California, leaving just five (Portland, St. John's, Grand Rapids, Iowa, and Winnipeg) to complete the circuit. With the warmer weather this year, I decided to get up to Portland in February, something that would have been a lot more difficult last year when New England was suffering from record snowfall.

The Pirates, who are affiliated with the Florida Panthers this season, play at the Cross Insurance Arena, not to be confused with the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. The venue is located in downtown Portland and is surrounded by a large number of bars and restaurants, good for both pre-game and post-game libations. The arena was opened in 1977 as the Cumberland County Civic Center and ZZ Top was the first act to play there. Elvis was supposed to fly to Portland for a concert here on the day he was found dead.

Two incarnations of the Maine Mariners played here between 1977 and 1992 before the Pirates took over in 1993, moving from Baltimore. Cross Insurance bought the naming rights in 2014, but there is one entrance that is sponsored by a competitor, Clark Insurance. The negotiators at Clark probably should have added a clause to ensure that they were not upstaged by Cross.

In 2013, renovations were undertaken that led the team to schedule their first few games in Lewiston, about 45 minutes north. However, a dispute between the Pirates and the arena led to them play the entire season in Lewiston and there were concerns that the team might have to leave Maine altogether. Fortunately an agreement was reached and the Pirates returned to the CCCC (it wasn't the CIA quite yet) for the 2014-15 season.

There is street parking around with meters expiring at 6 p.m., and a few lots and garages too, but I walked from my hotel so have no idea about prices. The box office is at the southwest corner of the venue inside a large lobby. Tickets are $20 for end zone and high rows at the blue line, and $24 for others. You can save $2 if you buy your tickets before 5 p.m. on game day. The seating bowl is quite steep, so you are above the glass even in the low rows.

Inside, the concourse is probably the blandest I have ever seen. There is nothing on the walls, no banners or decorations in the ceilings, or anything to indicate that a hockey team plays here. Perhaps the dispute during the renovations led the arena management to avoid making any mention of the Pirates, but whatever the case, only a few advertisements add any colour. There is a small party area called the C.N. Brown Landing that is above the Clark Entrance, and Friday nights there is a radio show held here. Fans can come in for Happy Hour, which starts at 4:56 and includes $4 beers, $5 appetizers, and $6 cocktails. I would recommend visiting one of the local eateries instead.

Inside the seating bowl, only a few banners indicate that the Pirates call the CCCC home. The team won the Calder Cup in their first season, but haven't done much since then, though the AHL All-Star Game was held here on two occasions.

There are railings all the way up the aisles, so if you have an aisle seat, you might be mildly bothered by these. Fortunately, there are plenty of empty seats to move to should you be dissatisfied.

Avoid the end zones though, as they are quite far from the ice.

There are also a couple of towers with suites which provide a cool view.

That's all I have to say about this place. It is purely a functional facility, with no history on display or anything else to make it a warmer or more interesting venue. Thankfully it is in a good area and the sightlines are excellent, thus making it worth a visit. Portland is just over 100 miles from Boston, but it doesn't get much tourism in the winter, keeping it a cheap destination. If you are in New England during the hockey season, consider taking a trip to Portland for the Pirates and adding a bit of life to the Cross Insurance Arena.

The Game

The Atlantic Division leading Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins were in town to take on Portland, who were third. Mike McKenna (below), who is in his 11th pro season, started for the Pirates. He was with Portland last year when they were Arizona's affiliate and signed with Florida to stay here. Matt Murray (Pittsburgh's 3rd round pick in 2012) completed the alliterative goalie trend for WBS. Murray is only 21 and in his second pro season, and based on what I saw tonight and a brief stint in Pittsburgh earlier this season (1.72 GAA in 4 games), he will be in the NHL soon enough (in fact, he was called up the next day and started against Washington in a nationally televised game on March 1st). Update: Murray went on to lead Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup, so pretty sure that this was his last AHL game.

The first period was goalless despite chances for both clubs. The highlight was a solid check by Ty Loney, who then had to fight Mackenzie Weegar to atone for playing the game properly. One thing that annoys me is when a clean hit is considered cause for dropping the gloves. Weegar should have been penalized for instigating, but the refs just gave them both five for fighting.

The second period saw more chances and another fight, but it wasn't until the 14:11 mark that a goal was scored when Dominik Simon (above, 5th round, 2015, out of the Czech Republic) banged home a juicy rebound for the only marker of the frame.

The Penguins started the third period down a man, and when Carter Rowney took a stupid cross-checking penalty just 10 seconds in, the Pirates had a 5-on-3. It took just 32 seconds for Connor Brickley (2nd round, 2010) to score, though he was helped by Murray (in net below) kicking the puck into the goal. A couple of minutes later, Rocco Grimaldi (above, 2nd round, 2011) took a penalty but the Pirates were able to kill it. As Grimaldi exited the sin bin, he received a pass from Brickley and broke in alone on Murray, deking him and tucking the puck home for the 2-1 advantage.

That only lasted a couple of minutes as Kael Mouillierat (#21 above, spent 6 games with the Islanders last season) tied things up by beautifully deflecting a shot from Will O'Neill (7th round by Atlanta in 2006, spent his college career at Maine). The rest of the period saw both teams trying for the winner, but both goalies kept the puck out of the net and we went to a 3-on-3 overtime. The AHL employs a dry scrape between the third period and overtime that takes about 5 minutes and really kills the game. The NHL did away with this stupid idea soon after the season began and the AHL needs to follow suit. Anyway, the overtime solved nothing, so it was time for the shootout.

Simon went first for the Penguins and beat McKenna (above). Grimaldi missed, as did O'Neill and then Rob Schremp (Edmonton's 1st-round pick in 2004 who has 114 games of NHL experience but spent the last few seasons in Europe). Mouillierat then shot for WBS and easily beat McKenna high to the glove side to clinch the contest for the visitors.

This turned out to be a very good game that took about 20 minutes longer than it should have. I don't particularly like the 3-on-3 overtime or the shootout, but it is even worse when you have to wait for it.


After the regular season ended, it was announced that Portland would be moving to Springfield to replace the Falcons, who are relocating to Tucson to be closer to parent club Arizona.



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