PORTLAND — Portland Pirates rookie Brett Hextall says playing for the first time in front of the home crowd is a little like going on a blind date.

“You can’t just show up and expect things to go great,” he said. “You have to plan things to talk about on a blind date. It’s the same idea here. You’ve got think about it, wrap your head around it, and start getting yourself into the right frame of mind.”

Like all but one of his teammates, Hextall makes his Cumberland County Civic Center debut tonight as a Pirate against the Manchester Monarchs.

It will be the first home game for the Pirates since they became the top minor-league affiliate of the Phoenix Coyotes last June after the Buffalo Sabres ended their three-year relationship with Portland.

“With the length of our season and the roller-coaster ride that it can be, you know, this is one of the high points in the season, for sure,” said Hextall, son of NHL Hall of Fame goalie Ron Hextall. “I think the best way to approach it is just try to keep it even-keeled. It’s definitely not one of those games you have to get too amped up because that will happen when we step out here and get in front of our fans for the first time.”

Except for left wing Igor Gongalsky, who spent most of last season with the Pirates, all of the players are new to the Portland lineup. But for a lot of the players, tonight is just another opening night.

“To be quite honest, I’ve been through a number of these,” said defenseman Dean Arsene, a 10-year veteran. “I think our young guys may be feeling a little bit of jitters, but I think, for the most part, guys are used to it. They don’t have to be 10-year-pros. I’m sure they’ve all gone through opening nights at home, in juniors and in college.”

Still, the new Pirates want to make a good first impression.

“Our biggest concern is there’s been a great success with the Pirates in recent years, and the fans are expecting that out of us,” Arsene said. “We want to give them a taste of what they can expect all season long. The Pirates have been successful franchise for a number of the years, and just because there’s a change in the affiliation, we don’t want to have a change in the outcome.”

Last Saturday night, the Pirates opened the season with a 4-2 win against the Sound Tigers in Bridgeport, Conn.

“We had a lot of practice this year, and a long training camp for some guys, and it was nice just to get out there and get into the game and let your emotions kind of go and execute everything you’ve worked on in practice,” Arsene said. “We weren’t perfect, but we got the two points.”

Staff Writer Paul Betit can be contacted at 791-6424 or at:

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