Led by two goals from Brett Sterling, the Pirates extended their winning streak to four games with a 6-4 victory over the Hershey Bears in front of 5,826 at the Cumberland County Civic Center.
It was the Pirates’ sixth consecutive win at the Civic Center as they leapfrogged the Syracuse Crunch for seventh place in the AHL’s Eastern Conference after they lost to the Rochester Americans on Friday. The Manchester Monarchs, who earned 5-4 shootout victory over the Connecticut Whale, remain in ninth place as they trail the Pirates by two points.
“I’m really proud of this group,” said Pirates’ head coach Ray Edwards. “We’re hanging in there. We’ve worked really hard down the stretch… If we play well on Sunday, I’m proud of this group regardless (of the outcome). We couldn’t have asked for anything more.”
The Pirates have one game left in the season and need a win in Providence on Sunday, while the Monarchs or Crunch would need to lose one of their remaining two games. If the Pirates were to lose either in regulation or in extra time against the Bruins, it would take a slide ruler to calculate the different ways for them to clinch one of the two remaining playoff spots.
A loss by Portland in regulation would require either the Monarchs (vs. Hershey, vs. St. John’s) or the Crunch (vs. Connecticut, at Albany) to lose both of their remaining game left in the season. If the Pirates lose in overtime or a shootout, a loss by the Monarchs in one of the two remaining games would seal a playoff berth for Portland regardless of the outcome in the games by Syracuse.
Either way, the Pirates will be scoreboard watching on Saturday.
“We’ll be scoreboard watching a little bit on Saturday, but what we’ve done is make Sunday relevant and that was our goal,” said Edwards. “We just wanted to have an opportunity to be there.”
Down 1-0 on a goal by Hershey’s Kyle Greentree as the Pirates gave up a league-leading 15th shorthanded goal of the season, they bounced back with three unanswered goals to take a 3-1 lead midway into the second period.
Brett MacLean put the Pirates on the board, redirecting Tyler Eckford’s blast from the point at 11:55 of the first period.
Matt Watkins scored his 11th of the season just 54 seconds into the second period, giving the Pirates their first lead of the game.
At 5:33, Sterling scored his first of two on the night while on the power play as he snapped a shot from the left circle after the Pirates won the battle along the near side boards.
Both teams’ combined for five goals in the period, capped off with a flurry of activity in a span of 2 minutes, 34 seconds as the Bears closed the lead to 4-3.
“I thought we defended pretty well,” said Edwards. “We didn’t give up a whole lot to them, but they were able to score on those few chances that they got, but our defending was solid and our power play was huge for us tonight.”
“The difference between now and the first half of the season is (the opponents) would score a goal and we’d tighten up and they’d get the momentum and we weren’t able to bounce back,” said Pirates’ captain Dean Arsene. “This last stretch of games we’ve been able to suck it up and stay positive on the bench and get another goal and even though they’d score, we didn’t panic and we were able to keep the momentum on our side.”
The last time these two teams met was back in early December as the Bears trounced the Pirates 7-1. It was a memory that wasn’t lost on the team heading into the third period.
Sterling notched his second goal of the night at 2:08 of the second period with a power-play goal, finding the puck in a scrum and shoveling it by Bears’ netminder Daren Machesney, putting the Pirates up 5-3.
Less than two minutes later, Hershey bounced back with a power-play goal of their own as Ryan Potulny snapped a wide-angled shot from the right goal line under the crossbar.
At 5:23, Kenndal McArdle put the game away, firing a wrist shot through a screen by Machesney to give Portland a 6-4 lead.
“We were embarrassed back in December when we went into their rink,” said Arsene, who was a former captain of the Bears. “It was my first time back there and for me personally I was very embarrassed. This was a big game. We need the two points and we were playing for our playoff lives.”
Brett Sterling nearly had the hat trick midway into the period as he was haul down on a breakaway after coming out of the penalty box, but came up short has he attempted to outmaneuver Machesney.
Mannino finished the game with 24 saves.
NOTES: Pirates’ Hall of Fame goalie Olaf Kolzig was in attendance at the game on Friday. He is the associate goaltending coach for the Washington Capitals, working with the goaltenders in Hershey and the Caps’ ECHL affiliate, South Carolina Stingrays… The Pirates handed out their end of season awards at the conclusion of the game. Pirates Partner Award: Bill Dodge Auto Group; Mister Sparky Spark Plug of the Year: Marc-Antoine Pouliot; Fairway Mortgage Three Star Award: Andy Miele; Jack Button Award (Top Prospect, as chosen by Phoenix Coyotes organization): Michael Stone; Tom Ebright Award (Player who best exemplifies what it means to be a Pirate): Matt Watkins; Players’ Player: Dean Arsene; Most Popular Player (voted by fans): Ryan Hollweg; Unsung Hero (voted by fans): Tyler Eckford and Most Valuable Player, Presented by Maine Medical Center (voted by fans): Andy Miele.