The Portland Bluebacks‘ first season in their new city has been a dream come to life. They got off to a fast start and haven’t slowed down since. They’ve had a sellout crowd for every game. They have a fun new fight song. And now, they’re the first SHL team to clinch a spot in the postseason.
“Stumptown, welcome to the playoffs!” crowed owner Jared Carmichael after his team clinched. “We have the greatest fans in the league and they deserve this, and I’m so glad we were able to deliver. Onward to greatness!”
The Bluebacks officially punched their ticket on Tuesday by beating the New York Night 3-2 at Neon Sky Arena. During the team’s beer-soaked celebration, they sang several choruses of “Catch the Bluebacks Fever,” the aforementioned fight song. The party continued when the team returned to Portland on Wednesday morning, where they were greeted at the airport by hundreds of fans, and at their game at Willamette River Arena the next night, where they soaked in the adulation of the crowd. Then on Saturday, they thrashed the Anchorage Igloos 6-2 at Arctic Circle Arena to clinch their first-ever division title.
“I wish we’d been able to clinch at home, because these fans have been there for us all season,” said RW Vince Mango. “They’ve been the wind at our backs all the way through, and I can’t want to bring the Vandy home to them.”
This season saw another stage of Mango’s gradual maturation. Once derided as a selfish, one-dimensional, publicity-hungry scorer, the winger stepped up his passing game last season, looking for ways to set up his teammates rather than always shooting first. This season, Mango has embraced his role as a team leader. going out of his way to praise teammates in interviews and arranging team bonding events.
“The growth in Vince is the growth I’ve seen across the squad,” said coach Harold Engellund. “He’s become a better and more well-round player, and we’ve become a well-rounded team.”
The Bluebacks are hoping that this year’s playoff experience is more pleasant than last season’s. The then-Seattle Sailors made their first-ever trip to the playoffs in 2019. But they faced off against the defending champion Igloos, and found themselves rudely dismissed in a three-game sweep.
“I think that was a good learning experience for us,” said Engellund. “Anchorage handed us our heads, yeah, but we came away from that a stronger team. And we learned about by watching Anchorage and their approach to the game, and how they took it up to the next level for the playoffs.”
Portland will definitely be a challenging playoff opponent. They’ve been among the SHL’s top goal scorers all season, but they’ve also got a solid defense and excellent goaltending from the perennially underrated Jesse Clarkson.
“Playing in front of such big and enthusiastic crowds, it just fires you up,” said Clarkson. “I think our crowds have added 20 points to my save percentage, just from the extra energy.”
The Bluebacks will surely be able to count on more sellout crowds in the playoffs. Whether they can bring the Vandy home to those fans.. well, it should make for an interesting spring in the Rose City.