PORTLAND — The excuses were all there for the Portland Pirates.

During the past four days, four of their top players had been called up to the NHL by the Buffalo Sabres.

They had 17 skaters, one fewer than normal, available for the game.

They were playing the Hershey Bears, the two-time defending Calder Cup champions.

Apparently, the Pirates don’t make excuses. They just win hockey games.

Portland pulled out a 3-2 shootout victory against the Bears before a crowd of 4,403 at the Cumberland County Civic Center.

It was the fourth consecutive win for the Pirates and it lifted them into a tie with idle Manchester for first place in the AHL’s Atlantic Division.

“We approached tonight as a playoff game,” said Colin Stuart, a veteran left wing who scored in the shootout. “Obviously, (Hershey is) one of the top teams in the league and so are we.

“We had a lot to prove. We wanted to send a message throughout the league that we’re for real and I think we did that tonight.”

It was a gritty, well-played game.

“Although both teams are missing some key guys, it felt like it had some intensity to it,” Portland Coach Kevin Dineen said. “Tonight was the kind of night where we felt it was going to be a low-scoring, hard-fought game, and it turned out to be exactly that.”

The Pirates took another personnel hit when rookie forward Luke Adam, who is averaging more than a point per game, and veteran center Mark Parrish, who had nine points in his last three games, were called up by Buffalo after Thomas Vanek came down with the flu and joined forwards Jochen Hecht, Mike Grier and Patrick Kaleta on the Sabres’ not-able-to-play list.

Last Saturday, Mark Mancari, the Pirates’ leading scorer, and Jhonas Enroth, their top goaltender, were called up.

“Tonight was an opportunity for guys to step up,” said Corey Tropp, who scored his ninth goal of the season in the third period to give the Pirates a short-lived lead and had the winning score during the shootout.

“Obviously, we all knew we’ve lost four great players, but the attention to detail is the same. It’s the same game plan.

“Going into the game, you know you’ve really got to work hard and I think we did a good job of that tonight.”

Goalie David Leggio made 30 saves, then stopped all four Hershey shooters during the shootout to post his ninth consecutive win.

The Bears, on the start of a four-game trip, opened the scoring five minutes into the game when Matthieu Perreault split the defense and scored his 10th goal of the season on a breakaway.

It took nearly two full periods for the Pirates to get the equalizer. Center Mark Voakes made it 1-1 when he finished off a two-on-one break, with Stuart by slipping the puck inside the right post for his second goal since joining the Pirates Sunday.

With less than five minutes left, Tropp’s shot from the left circle trickled in off goalie Nolan Schaefer’s glove to make it 2-1.

With less two minutes left, defenseman Patrick McNeill put in a power-play goal on a shot from the top of the left circle to send the game into overtime.

NOTES: The Pirates signed right wing Chris Blight to a professional tryout contract. Hershey center David de Kastrozza, a New Jersey native, played four seasons at the University of Maine.

Staff Writer Paul Betit can be contacted at 791-6424 or at: [email protected]