HARTFORD, Conn. – The Portland Pirates couldn’t have picked a worse time to go into a slump.

After the Hartford Whale beat Portland 4-2 on Sunday, the Pirates have lost six of their last seven games as they head into the final week of the regular season.

After surging into first place in the AHL’s Atlantic Division by winning nine of their first 10 games in March, the Pirates have struggled lately without several top players who have been promoted to Buffalo (Mark Mancari, Matt Ellis, Jhonas Enroth, Marc-Andre Gragnani) or who are injured (Paul Byron).

“There are a lot of things that factor into what’s been going on with the team lately,” Derek Whitmore said. “We have every excuse out there to use in terms of why we’re not being successful. But the bottom line is the guys that are here have a great opportunity to step up and play in key situations — situations that you want to be in that you might not have with a full healthy lineup.

“It’s lack of execution and the lack of will to win. Our ‘compete’ level is there in spurts. But for the full 60 minutes, I think we’re having too many lapses that we can control. At this time of year, we don’t want to be heading in this direction.”

Portland remained one point ahead of Manchester in the race for the division title. The Pirates have five games left, while Manchester has only three left.

“We’ve got another game in hand on them Tuesday and then we play them head-to-head Wednesday,” Whitmore said. “That probably will decide the division.”

Hartford led 2-0 after the first period, and if Pirates goalie David Leggio (43 saves) had been less sharp, the Whale could have scored as many as five goals.

Jeremy Williams scored at 3:31 when he snapped home a shot from the top of the right circle.

Just 22 seconds later, Dale Weise intercepted a Nick Crawford pass and stuffed the puck through Leggio’s pads for a 2-0 lead.

Hartford unloaded a season-high 23 shots in the first period and equaled its season-high for shots in a game (47).

“David played a good game,” Pirates Coach Kevin Dineen said. “I think he settled down, which isn’t an easy thing to do when you get scored on a couple of times early. I think his response was excellent.”

Hartford made it 3-0 on Derek Couture’s power-play goal at 17:28 of the second period. Weise added a short-handed goal at 2:25 of the third.

Portland countered with goals by Colin Stuart at 12:46 and Mark Parrish on a power-play at 17:28.

“We got outplayed the first four minutes of the game,” Dineen said. “You’ve got to show up every shift. Obviously, we weren’t prepared to start the game and it cost us early.

“Whether you begin strong or end strong, you need to do that to have success.”