Ekman-Larsson surprised Manchester goalie Martin Jones with a sneaky wrister from the top of the left circle 3:45 into the third period Friday night to lift the host Portland Pirates to a 4-2 win over the Manchester Monarchs in front of a sellout crowd of 3,745 at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee.
“When you have the chance to shoot it hard, you shoot it hard, but when you have guys in front of you, you have to find a way to the net,” Ekman-Larsson said. “I was a great screen by (Brett Hextall) there. I don’t think he saw the puck.”
Ekman-Larsson, normally one of the Phoenix Coyotes’ top defensemen when the National Hockey League is playing, has seen a lot of playing time in Portland this fall, and he’s made the most of his time. His goal and an assist on an earlier tally Friday ran his season point total to 19.
“He’s just an elite player,” Portland coach Ray Edwards said. “He’s just above and beyond. The talent level, the character he brings, the competitive level he brings every night, it’s really nice for the young players to see how he works, and how he competes.”
Chris Brown added an empty-net goal in the final 10 seconds to cap the scoring. The Pirates are 3-1 this season at the Colisee after playing four of six scheduled games at the arena, and Portland is now 7-1 in its last eight games played in Lewiston.
“What I liked about the game (Friday) is how hard we worked,” Edwards said. “We had our feet going, we were playing with a lot of pace, we only took two penalties, which is something we’ve been focusing on.”
For Manchester captain Marc-Andre Cliche, Friday’s game was a homecoming of sorts as well. The defensive forward spent four years playing with the Lewiston Maineiacs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, for which he was also a captain.
Friday marked Cliche’s second professional game at the Colisee, the first coming in 2010.
Cliche and his penalty-killing linemates were busy in this contest, turning back five Portland power plays despite the loss.
“They have a good PK,” Edwards said. “Our power play has been really good. Even tonight we showed some signs of some good stuff, but they’re really tough to score against. They pressure the puck really well and they don’t give you a lot of time to make plays.”
It was Manchester which got things cranking on the scoreboard first, and it didn’t take long.
Dwight King, one of the handful of Manchester players who played last season for the Los Angeles Kings during their run to the Stanley Cup, stuffed home a rebound on a Brandon Kozun shot just 1:14 into the game. Kozun’s opportunity came after a blocked shot at his own blue line off the stick of Ekman-Larsson.
After settling in, the Pirates got the goal back, as David Rundblad sneaked his way into the low right circle and converted on a feed from Chris Summers at 8:12, knotting the game at 1-1.
“It was a faceoff play that was nicely executed,” Edwards said. “Those things happen; it was early in the game. It was a mistake, ended up in our net, but you have to keep fighting. What you can’t do is dwell on it.”
Portland went in front early in the second on the first sustained pressure of the middle frame for either team. Brett Hextall finished a rebound off in front of Jones after an Ekman-Larsson shot handcuffed the Manchester keeper at 3:46.
The Pirates held the territorial advantage for most of the remainder of the second period, thanks in large part to three separate minor penalties to the Monarchs. But Portland failed to capitalize, and following the Pirates’ third opportunity, the Monarchs swung the momentum back in their direction. Tanner Pearson gathered the puck on a feed from Tyler Toffoli, rushed up the left side and tried to center a pass to Linden Vey. The puck glanced off Portland defender Mathieu Brodeur and banked through Johnson’s pads.
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