PORTLAND – The Portland Pirates are coming out of the AHL All-Star break looking to maintain the momentum they developed during the past month.

“There was a real good effort and push between Christmas and the All-Star break, and that was a good part of the schedule to make some hay,” Portland Coach Kevin Dineen said. “We like to maintain where we are now and be really competitive in our division for first place.”

The Pirates won 11 of 15 games in January to move right behind the Manchester Monarchs, the AHL’s Atlantic Division leader.

“That run before the break showed we’ve got some great balance in our locker room, even though we had some injuries and call-ups, and we need to continue pushing forward,” veteran forward Matt Ellis said.

But Dineen said his club still has plenty of areas where improvement is needed.

“We’d like to get our goals-against down. I think that’s an area you always look at and say you must continue to improve upon,” he said. “Special teams have to be sharper than they have been for the first 48 games. We have to do a better job on special teams and stay healthy.”

Health already is a problem for the Pirates.

Forward Travis Turnbull is still recovering from an injury to his right shoulder that has kept him out for more than two months.

The Pirates also will play the rest of the season without All-Star defenseman Drew Schiestel, who traveled Thursday to Buffalo, where he will undergo surgery on his right knee.

Portland is averaging a league-best 3.46 goals per game but has a goals-against average of 2.97 — 19th among 30 AHL teams.

Special-teams play also has been mediocre. The Pirates’ power play ranks 15th, and they’re 13th in penalty killing.

Coming down the stretch, execution could provide the key for Portland, which plays 27 of its remaining 32 games against teams within the division.

“We’re going to play lots of games against teams we’re very familiar with, and you need good execution because you’re not changing up things a heck of a lot in those games,” Dineen said.

“We’re on that stretch run now and we have to set ourselves up in good position for postseason play,” Ellis said. “It’s taking care of the details, trying to get better every day and continue building.”

Ellis said the team needs to develop more of a killer instinct.

“The big thing that stirs the drink for this team is when we come out and dictate play instead of waiting,” he said.

“We have a tendency to wait until we’re down 1-0 before we decide to turn it up a notch. I think that is something important we’re going to focus on and hopefully improve upon down the stretch.”

Staff Writer Paul Betit can be contacted at 791-6424 or at:

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