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Local pro hockey: With Kirnan behind bench, Privateers win

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On a night where hockey history was made, the Thousand Islands Privateers didn’t disappoint.

Player-coach Paul Kelly scored two goals and goalie Matt Anthony made 29 saves as the Privateers downed the Danbury Whalers, 3-1, on Friday night in a Federal Hockey League game at the Watertown Municipal Arena.

Privateers owner and president Nicole Kirnan served as the team’s coach for the first time, and is believed to be the first female to coach a professional hockey team.

“It’s been a while since I’ve been here,” said Kirnan, who previously coached women’s hockey at the collegiate level at NCAA Division III Manhattanville College. “It was a bit of a challenge at first because you want to match up the lines in the right situations, but I had fun.”

Kelly scored his first two goals of the season, including a tally on his first shift, in his fourth game playing with the team.

“It’s good playing on a line with (Peter) Campbell and (Max) Mobley,” said Kelly, who needs to play in one more game to be able to skate with the Privateers in the playoffs. “They create good offense out there and we were able to capitalize on our chances.”

“This is really the best way to maximize what everybody can contribute here,” Kirnan said. “It’s great that we’re able to get Paul Kelly out there, he’s a huge asset on the ice and we’re able to utilize his offensive talents.”

The Privateers clinched third place in the league and assured themselves of a playoff series against the Whalers.

“It’s a huge win,” assistant captain Adam McAllister said. “We want to set the tone for the playoffs, and we want to finish the regular season strong. This is a good step for us.”

The FHL semifinal playoff series will open Friday with the first three games of the best-of-five series in Danbury. Games 4 and 5, if necessary, will be played at Watertown on March 12-13.

“It was another one of those back-and-forth games,” Danbury coach Phil Esposito said. “We played real well tonight and we had our opportunities, but we didn’t score. We hit some crossbars and we hit the post, but they capitalized on their chances. But you can’t win hockey games by scoring just one goal.”

Kirnan will serve as the Privateers’ bench coach for the remainder of the season, including the playoffs.

“It’s kind of a different feeling,” Kirnan said. “It takes a little while to get settled in, but a game is just a game. You get more comfortable and just take it from there.”

Kelly, who served as Thousand Islands player-coach during the second half of last season, opened the scoring only 30 seconds in. He sent a Nick LaPorte rebound past goalie Mike Brown.

“Some of the players from the other team were like ‘Why did you get the start?’” Kelly said. “And after I scored early on like that I just said ‘That’s why I got the start.’ It’s just fun being back on the ice again.”

Kelly struck again by converting on a feed from Mobley, a St. Lawrence University product, to provide the Privateers with a 2-0 advantage 4:30 into the third period.

“It’s getting better,” said Kelly, who said he played about 20 minutes on Friday. “The first few games I didn’t really play much — I played on special teams and had a shift here and there just to get my bearings. This is the weekend where I thought I would try to turn it up a little bit. I still didn’t play a ton, but I’m pretty happy where I’m at.”

The Whalers averted the shutout as Richard Vanderhoek scored at 13:11 to finally solve Anthony.

Anthony stopped 29 of 30 shots as the Privateers won for the third time in their past five games against rival Danbury.

“It wasn’t just me, it was a team effort,” Kelly said. “I think this was one of our best team efforts of the season, we stuck to the game plan. Our defense played great and moved the puck well. We limited the amount of their chances, which makes it easier for us.”

Mike Brown finished with 24 saves for the Whalers, who had already clinched second place.

The Privateers conclude their regular season by hosting the Whalers at 7:35 tonight.

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