After the first 30 games of the season, you would think the Portland Pirates would have everything down pat.
The Pirates, who have been among the top three teams in the American Hockey League’s Atlantic Division since the start of the season, are still very much a work in progress.
“The consistency really hasn’t been where we’d like it to be,” defenseman Drew Scheistel said. “We played a pretty decent game for stretches. We showed a lot of good things. There were tight games where we had a chance to win but we just couldn’t find a way to win.”
The Pirates got off to a tremendous start, winning 11 of their first 15 games. But they have gone 6-7-1-1 in their last 15 games.
“We hold a pretty high standard for ourselves and anything short of a win isn’t acceptable to us,” veteran defenseman Tim Conboy said. “We’ve been really good or really bad lately, and we’ve got to get back to somewhere in the middle there.”
Call-ups and injuries have been factors.
During a recent visit to Portland, Buffalo Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier said call-ups from the Pirates already exceeded the number of players the NHL club brought up all of last season.
Last Monday, rookie forward Luke Adam was called up by the Sabres for the second time this season. Previously, goalie Jhonas Enroth, and forwards Colin Stuart, Matt Ellis and Mark Mancari spent time in Buffalo.
“This year a lot of our high-end scorers have been called up, so guys here are getting expanded roles, and that’s what we want,” Coach Kevin Dineen said. “We want them to get their chance to play in those kinds of situations. It’s all part of the growing process as we move forward with call-ups and injuries that guys get exposed to different areas and they can find some identity so when we need them to play those roles, there’s a comfort level.”
In addition to the call-ups, forwards Mark Parrish and Travis Turnbull incurred injuries that kept them out for a month.
“One thing in this league is you’re never going to have a full lineup, either from injuries or call-ups,” Conboy said. “Part of being a good team is being able to adapt to those changes. Hopefully we can do it.”
Dineen isn’t sure the younger players on his team have taken full advantage of the opportunities that have arisen when one of their teammates has been called up or injured.
“Guys come from juniors or college and they were power-play guys or penalty-kill guys at that level, and they think that’s where they should be when they move on into the pro level,” he said. “The reality is they were pretty good players at whatever their previous level was, but for me the work comes before the reward. They have to show me on a consistent basis they are going to put in a high level of work ethic to earn those coveted spots.”
Special-teams play remains a concern.
The Pirates rank 23rd among the AHL’s 30 teams on the power play with a 15.6 conversion rate. comparison, the Chicago Wolves score on 24.5 percent of their power-play chances to lead the league.
On the penalty kill, the Pirates rank 14th, killing off 83.7 percent of their opponents’ power plays. The Peoria Rivermen lead the league at 88.3 percent.
“We have to improve our power play,” Dineen said. “We have to simplify it. Special teams, in general, have to start winning us some hockey games.”
The Pirates, who play at Worcester today, come off the holiday break with a 17-10-2-1 record and in second place in the Atlantic Division, five points behind the Manchester Monarchs.
“When you have the start that we did, the expectations are high, then you start losing a couple of games and you start wondering why,” forward Dennis McCauley said. “In any situation, you’re going to have your highs, and you’re going to have your lows and it’s how you rebound from it.”
“We’re realizing as a group, I think, how hard we have to compete every night,” Dineen said. “That’s a good thing for us to learn after the first 30 games.”
Staff Writer Paul Betit can be contacted at 791-6424 or at: