PORTLAND — As the Portland Pirates try to complete their drive to an AHL playoff berth, defenseman Nick Ross is taking advantage of an increase in his ice time.

“When you don’t get to play every night, you have to get the most out of it you can,” he said. “I try not to take a night off. I try to make a difference in every game I play.”

After having to sit, often as a healthy scratch, for most of the Pirates’ first 50 games, Ross has been in the lineup for 21 of the last 22 games. During that stretch, he has scored his first four AHL goals and has nine of his 12 assists. His plus-minus rating for the season is a team-best plus-14.

Ross, 23, has gotten the bulk of his playing time during the Pirates’ chase for a Calder Cup playoff berth.

Going into today’s games, the Pirates are among eight teams with a mathematical possibility of claiming one of the two remaining playoff berths in the AHL’s Eastern Conference. Eight teams from each conference qualify for postseason play.

Syracuse, which has earned points in 15 of its last 17 games, has the inside track on clinching one of those playoff berths. The Crunch have 80 points and can secure a spot by winning two of the last three games.

Manchester, which has four games left, and Portland, which has three games remaining, each have 77 points. The Monarchs own the tiebreaker over Portland (non-shootout victories) and can clinch by winning three of their last four games no matter what the Pirates do. The teams do not meet again this season.

Other Eastern Conference teams still with a shot at a playoff berth include Adirondack, Providence, Springfield, Worcester and Albany.

Manchester visits Worcester tonight. A Manchester win would eliminate Springfield, Worcester and Albany.

Portland Coach Ray Edwards said Ross has earned the right to be in the lineup during such a critical stretch of the season.

“There were times when he was battling to get into the lineup, and there (were) a lot of players, and it was tough for him to get in,” Edwards said. “He’s been sat out a lot of games, and he’s been able to play through it. Now, he’s forcing us to keep him in the lineup.”

Injuries to defensemen Maxim Goncharov, who has missed the last 10 games, and Mathieu Brodeur, who has missed the last six games, have led to more ice time for Ross.

“I’ve just gotten to play a few more games in a row here, and I feel more confident,” he said. “I just need to clean up a few things in the (defensive) zone a little bit.

“I’m real happy with my offense, and hopefully I’ll have a better defensive game.”

Selected by the parent Phoenix Coyotes in the first round of the 2007 NHL draft, Ross split his first two professional seasons between the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage and the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers.

“It hasn’t been a perfect start to his professional career,” Edwards said. He’s been in the ECHL, in and out of the lineup, and this year it didn’t start off great.”

Ross suited up for only 11 of the first 51 games.

“He (understands) there is a certain sacrifice and a certain level of commitment you have to give the game,” Edwards said. “He’s starting to do that, and it’s paid off for him.”

Staff Writer Paul Betit can be contacted at 791-6424 or at: pbetit@pressherald.com

Twitter: PaulBetitPPH