WORCESTER, Mass. — Say this for the Portland Pirates. They don’t give up easily.
Shrugging off an eight-game losing streak Saturday night and a two-goal deficit Sunday afternoon, the Pirates scored three unanswered goals in the third period to beat the Worcester Sharks 5-4 and secure the final berth in the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup playoffs.
A crowd of 6,242 at the DCU Center included a section of 56 Pirates fans who traveled down by bus and celebrated as the Pirates swarmed goaltender Mike McKenna following the final horn.
“Just elation,” said McKenna, who came on in relief of starter Louis Domingue late in the second period with the Pirates trailing 4-2. “It wasn’t that we just came back and squeaked it out. It was an emphatic win and we had an entire section celebrating with us. … That’s the highest of highs in hockey, winning a big game like that on a big scale.”
Needing to at least reach overtime to catch the Springfield Falcons for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, the Pirates won for the second day in a row. They finished eighth in the conference with 87 points.
They face top-seeded Manchester in a best-of-five opening-round series scheduled to begin Thursday night in New Hampshire.
The Pirates did it with McKen- na shutting down the Sharks – who finished seventh with 88 points – and with 21-year-old rookie Henrik Samuelsson scoring twice in the first seven minutes of the third period to tie the game at 4.
His first goal came on a power play, as he tipped a shot from Patrick McNeill past Worcester goaltender Aaron Dell. The equalizer came on a pretty feed from behind the net by fellow rookie Christian Dvorak, playing in only his second game as a professional.
“We talked (during the second intermission) and said we’ve got to play desperate hockey,” Samuelsson said. “We were playing for our playoff lives. We went out and just played as hard as we could and got rewarded for it.”
With less than a minute left in regulation, Samuelsson poked the puck loose from a Worcester defenseman and Alexandre Bolduc swooped in, skated into the right circle and whistled a shot into the upper left corner of the net to cap Portland’s comeback.
“I was just happy to not go overtime after three (games) in three (days),” Bolduc said. “Getting in the playoffs is a pretty good feeling. I’m excited to play Manchester.”
Samuelsson and Bolduc also set up Portland’s first goal, just 59 seconds after the opening faceoff, when the 19-year-old Dvorak buried a feed from Bolduc.
The line of the veteran Bolduc with the two rookies, Samuelsson and Dvorak, produced four goals.
The other score came from Brendan Shinnimin, who took a big windup and blasted a slap shot from the right circle on a three-on-two rush to close the margin to one after Worcester opened a 3-1 lead early in the second period.
When Worcester once more extended its lead to two, Pirates Coach Ray Edwards pulled Domingue, who had played so well in Saturday night’s crucial 3-2 victory at home against Providence.
In six previous career games against Worcester, Domingue had a 1-5-0 record with a 3.70 goals-against average. McKenna, named the Pirates MVP Saturday night, has enjoyed much better success, going 5-3-0 as a Pirate with a 2.70 GAA (and 10-10-2 overall).
“No, I don’t second-guess that,” Edwards said of the decision to start Domingue, who departed with 14 saves. “There’s a braintrust of people who get together on it and you make a decision that you think is best for your team.”
Worcester managed seven shots against McKenna over the final 28 minutes and none got past him. During stoppages in play, McKenna skated over to the Pirates bench and encouraged his teammates.
“He really calmed our group down and made some big saves when he needed to,” Edwards said. “He just showed really great leadership.”
So what was it McKenna said?
“I believe in you guys. We can do this.”
Turns out trailing by two goals with 20 minutes left in your season wasn’t such a desperate situation after all. At least, not from the view through McKenna’s facemask.
“We didn’t look desperate, we looked determined,” he said. “Desperate teams make tons of mistakes and it goes the wrong way. When you’re determined, you can just sense it.”
On to Manchester.
NOTES: First-round matchups for the Eastern Conference playoffs are set: No. 1 Manchester vs. No. 8 Portland; No. 2 Hershey vs. No. 7 Worcester; No. 3 Hartford vs. No. 6 Providence; and No. 4 Syracuse vs. No. 5 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. … Pirates forward Justin Hodgman, who took an elbow to the jaw Saturday night, was scratched from Sunday’s lineup. Defenseman Joel Hanley required 30 stitches to close a gash in his upper leg opened by a skate in the first period and did not return. … After games Thursday and Saturday night in Manchester, the series comes to Portland for a 5 p.m. game Sunday. Game 4, if needed, would be April 30 in Portland. … The Portland fan bus caught fire on the return trip and a replacement was brought in.