PORTLAND – The Portland Pirates have hit a wall, and it couldn’t have come at a worst time with 15 games left in the regular season.
The Pirates, who have only two victories in its last eight games, held a one-goal lead heading into the third period against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins Saturday night at the Cumberland County Civic Center.
Joey Mormina and Trevor Smith tallied third period goals to lift the Penguins to a 3-2 win, tightening the race in the AHL’s Eastern Conference.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (34-26-2-1) pulled to within two points of the Pirates (34-22-3-2) for fifth place in the Eastern Conference with only ten points separating fifth through 12th place. Eight teams in each conference make the Calder Cup playoffs. Portland remain six points behind the Providence Bruins for the Atlantic Division lead.
“This group is not like last year,” said Pirates’ coach Ray Edwards in comparison to each team’s locker room atmosphere. “They understand when we play a certain way, with how we compete, but there are certain players that are fighting that identity. This is our organizational identity. They know how much success that we can have when we play the right way.”
The Pirates began strong opening up a 2-0 lead after the first period on goals by Andy Miele and Boris Valabik only 30 seconds apart.
Late in the first period, the Penguins gained some momentum from a fight a between Alex Grant and Pirates’ rookie Darian Dziurzynski, who signed a two-way, entry-level contract with the Phoenix Coyotes last week, and it carried over into the second period with more penalty trouble for the Pirates, giving Wilkes-Barre/Scranton back-to-back five-on-three power plays midway into period.
“We had all the momentum and then ran into all the penalties, and of course they got all the momentum back,” said Edwards. “Our guys are struggling with playing the right way. We’re inconsistent and our game has shown that.”
Mathieu Brodeur was called for playing with a broken stick at the 11:09 mark, and Mark Louis went for high-sticking only 28 seconds later, giving the Penguins a five-on-three for 1:32.
Biddeford native Brian Dumoulin scored his first professional goal in Maine as he tallied a five-on-three power-play goal, ripping a shot from the right circle past Pirates’ goalie Chad Johnson at 12:36 of the second period.
Less than a minute after the goal with the Penguins still on the power play, defenseman Maxim Goncharov was given a major penalty for boarding and a game misconduct, putting the Pirates down to five defensemen.
Edwards was reserving judgment on the call until he was able to see the replay, but pointed out that team has been dealing with an epidemic for the last month.
“I’ve got to look at that hit,” he said. “I don’t want to harp on anyone until I see the video, but we’ll look at it evaluate it.”
The bottom line is it’s a challenge. We took a five minute major the last game. We’ve lost game through poor puck play and taking poor penalties. I’ve told the group that it’s up to them. They know how we can play when we play the right way. They know what happens when we don’t. We’re not reinventing the wheel. They have to make the decision.”
Portland got its first power play with 1:10 left in the second period as Warren Peters was called for interference, leaving 51 seconds of carry over into the third period.
Shortly after the power play expired in the period, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton tied the game, 2-2, off a rebound from defenseman Mormina in the slot just 21 seconds after the Pirates power play expired in the third period.
“The penalties just sucked the life out of us,” said Edwards.
“The second period was the difference. They were on the power play for the last 10 minutes of that period so there wasn’t much five-on-five play, but in the third period they were better than us on five-on-five. They scored on the turnover and after that we didn’t generate anything. It comes down to hard work, execution and our compete level.”
Wilkes-Barre took the lead for the first time in the game at 10:23 of the third period on a goal by Trevor Smith.
The puck was blocked by a Pirate to Smith in the slot who snapped a shot by Johnson for a, 3-2, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton lead.
Johnson finished the game with 24 saves.
Miele, who extended his point-scoring streak to four games, opened the scoring at the 3:24 mark by powering around a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton defender, beating goaltender Jeff Zatkoff for a 1-0 lead.
Just 30 seconds later, the Pirates struck again when defenseman Boris Valabik ripped a shot from the left point past Zatkoff, who stopped 21 saves in the game, for only his second goal of the season, putting Portland out front, 2-0.
NOTES: The Pirates assigned goaltender Mark Visentin to the Gwinnett Gladiators of the ECHL. Visentin has missed the last month with a lower-body injury. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound rookie has played in 22 games with the Pirates, posting a record of 11-9-1 with a 2.85GAA and .909 save percentage… Forward Nick Johnson, who cleared waivers on Thursday, was playing in his first game since being assigned to Portland by the Coyotes. He played sporadic minutes in the game due to illness. In 17 games with the Coyotes this season, he’s scored four goals, two assists for six points with a plus-3 rating. This is Johnson’s second assignment to the Pirates. In his previous assignment he appeared in two games, going scoreless.