SACO — The Portland Pirates came off the practice rink at the MHG Ice Center huffing and sweaty, the end of a spirited hour of up-and-down skating and situational drills.

They accomplished all they had hoped, focusing on their AHL Atlantic Division semifinal against the Hershey Bears – a best-of-five series that begins this weekend at Cross Insurance Arena.

They pushed each other, fighting for pucks and skating room. Scott Allen, who took over as head coach Jan. 1, loved what he saw.

“That internal competition is what stokes our fire,” he said. “That’s something that we’ve talked about all year. We want guys competing in practice on a daily basis. That’s the only way you will improve.

“We have to practice like we play. We are not a team that can practice easy and soft and light, and then turn it on in the game. We have to challenge ourselves every day.”

And they will face a great challenge against the Bears.

Only two AHL teams scored more goals than Hershey (259) this season. They come into this series with the league’s MVP and leading scorer – Chris Bourque, son of NHL Hall of Famer and former Boston Bruins star Ray Bourque. Chris Bourque scored 30 goals and 50 assists to lead the league. And the Bears have several other players capable of scoring quickly, such as rookies Riley Barber (26 goals, 29 assists) and Travis Boyd (21 goals, 32 assists), and left wing Nathan Walker (17 goals, 24 assists).

The Pirates? Not so much. Left wing Rob Schremp led Portland in scoring with 42 points (21 goals, 21 assists), ranking 89th in the AHL. Portland’s success comes from its depth and hard work.

“We’re a tenacious team,” said Schremp, who played in Europe the previous four seasons. “We don’t ever give up. No matter what is going on in the game, we stay the course. We’re kind of relentless in that aspect.”

And they know they are going to have to continue doing that against Hershey, which won the division with 98 points. Portland finished fourth in the Atlantic with 90 points.

“They are a very offensive team,” said Pirates defenseman Cameron Gaunce, who tied for second on the team with 37 points (two goals, 35 assists). “We have to make sure we play our game. We are who we are. When you play a team like that, there is a tendency to try to match their skills and match their run-and-gun. We just don’t have that. When we play a team like that, it still has to be about us first.”

The teams split in the regular season, each winning two games at home. The Pirates opened their home schedule with back-to-back wins over Hershey on Oct. 17 (3-2) and Oct. 18 (5-2). Hershey swept the Pirates on Nov. 20 (3-2) and Nov. 21 (4-2).

Since the teams haven’t met in five months, they’ve been playing catch-up this week.

“We’re doing our research, we’re watching them (on film),” said Allen. “They’ve changed and we’ve changed since we played. I’m sure they’re doing the same thing.”

Gaunce likes the fact they haven’t played recently. “I think that builds in a little more excitement,” he said. “Sometimes when you play the same team 12 times, there’s a bit of monotony involved. Hershey’s a brand new test for us and a lot of us are looking forward to the challenge.”

Just two years removed from a woeful season in Lewiston, the Pirates came into this season with a new NHL affiliate, the Florida Panthers, who replaced the Arizona Coyotes. They missed the playoffs two years ago and were beaten by eventual Calder Cup champ Manchester in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals last year in five games, losing 5-3 in the finale.

Goalie Mike McKenna, the only player returning from last year’s team, likes what the new regime has brought.

“Different players, different organization, different mentality,” he said. “The biggest thing is that we have been playing some pretty good hockey lately. We all feel hopeful that we can accomplish something big.”

McKenna, who had a superb season with a 33-17-5 record and 2.45 goals-against average, especially likes the leadership on the Pirates.

“The professionalism is very high in our locker room,” he said. “A lot of our guys have been captains, not just now but in the past. They know what it takes to win.”

While the Pirates may not be able to match Hershey’s offense, they feel they have enough quality forwards to keep things close. They play four lines regularly and everyone is expected to contribute.

“It’s a different guy every night,” said right wing Wayne Simpson, who had eight goals and 28 assists this year. “Unfortunately sometimes you have an off night. But someone else steps up big. And we’ve got guys who can play, offensively, defensively, on the penalty kill, power play … We find ways to win games.”

Now they have to find a way to win at least three more.

“I love our team’s chances. I love our team,” said Allen. “We score by committee, we get contributions from everybody and that’s how we have to play.”