PORTLAND — A key contributor will be back in the line up tonight when the Portland Pirates take the Civic Center ice for Game 4 of their Atlantic Division semifinal tilt with the Providence Bruins.

Defenseman Mike Kostka, whose injured leg forced him to sit out the 5-1 hairball the Buccos coughed up in Sunday’s Game 3, is fit and ready to play.

Not to mention raring to go.

Kostka, a rookie free-agent who has blossomed into one of the Pirates’ most reliable blue liners, showed neither gimp nor limp during Tuesday’s hour long practice session at Portland Ice Arena.

“It’s playoff time,” said Kostka. “You do what you need to do. Come game time, I’ll be ready to go.”

Kostka had to be helped off the ice while favoring his right leg midway during Friday’s Game 2 in Providence.

He took the pregame skate on Sunday, but was a last-minute scratch.

It was the first game he missed all season.

The only thing that pained him more than the leg, he said, was having to witness and wince as his mates were mauled by the Bruins.

“Not only was it an ugly one to watch,” said Kostka, “it was just tough to sit there. The most frustrating part is when you watch and think that you might have been able to do something about it. You would if you could.”

And now he can.

While on the subject of defensemen, the Pirates now have 10 healthy bodies on the blue line, including the two newest additions, T.J. Brennan and Drew Schiestel.

Both arrived in town a few days back after winding up their junior hockey seasons, Brennan with Montreal (QMJHL) and Schiestel (rhymes with pistol) with Niagara (OHL).

The two were tabbed by Buffalo in Round 2 of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, Brennan with the 31st overall pick followed by Schiestel at pick No. 59.

Neither will likely see any game action during what remains of Portland’s playoff run, but both are happy for chance to dig into the Sabres’ system.

“I’ve been just trying to learn off of every player out here,” said Schiestel. Trying to act like a sponge and soak up all the information I can. From Dino (head coach Kevin Dineen) and Weino (assistant coach Eric Weinrich). “I’m just trying to get my feet wet and make a good first impression. I’ve felt pretty good so far.”

Brennan, who hails from Willingboro, N.J., said he’s been taking his cues from Pirate defenseman Chris Butler, a rookie who spent most of the season with the big club in Buffalo.

“I watch him all the time in practice,” said Brennan. “I ask him what I do in situations. He helps me with the break outs, which are different than what I was playing in junior. He works so hard. Even the coaches say to watch him during the games. It’s great to watch someone like him step in and go right up to Buffalo.”

Weinrich, who works closely with all the Pirates’ defensemen, said that both young d-men have caught his experienced eye.

“I think they’re two great prospects for Buffalo,” said Weinrich, who was quite the puck lugger himself during his lengthy NHL run. “They both skate well, have decent size, and have good puck skills. You need that nowadays. They seem like great kids, too. It’s not easy coming here as extras. But they’re the first on the ice, and the last off, all the time. All the things you want to see in (guys) who want to be pros.”

For a youngster, such late season cameos can provide a big boost that carries them into training camp, the following fall.

Exhibit A would be former Pirate Bobby Ryan, who joined the Pirates for late season stints twice in recent years.

Ryan, who racked up 31 goals and 26 assists this year for the Anaheim Ducks, was one of young standouts announced as Rookie of the Year finalists by the National Hockey League.

Chicago winger Kris Versteeg and Columbus goalie Steve Mason were the others.

Tuesday’s practice once again found center Tim Kennedy skating at left wing on a line with Marek Zagrapan and Mark Mancari, a move that could help jump start the Pirates’ sluggish playoff scoring.

Portland has scored just five goals in the three games with Providence. One of those (by Zagrapan) was an empty netter and none of them have come on the power play.

Colin Murphy moved up to play right wing with Mathieu Darche (now at center) and Nathan Gerbe.

“He (Dineen) has had us together the last couple of days,” said Murphy, who was unsure if the line changes would hold for tonight’s game. “Maybe he’s just trying to switch it up a little bit. It’s just a little change.”

One that could make a big difference.

The Pirates and the American Hockey League are slated to make a “major announcement” during a joint press conference scheduled for this afternoon (2 p.m.) at the Civic Center.

There is strong speculation that Portland will be awarded the 2010 AHL All-Star Classic, an event the Pirates hosted in 2003.

— Contact Dan Hickling at 282-1535 ext. 318 or [email protected].



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