PORTLAND – The Portland Pirates are atop the AHL’s Atlantic Division, and their coach says his team still has a lot of work to do if it wants to stay there.

With 33 games left in the regular season, the Pirates hold a five-point lead over the second-place Providence Bruins in the five-team division.

Portland Pirates Coach Ray Edwards said the team has to become more consistent and continue to improve in order to maintain its position and advance into postseason play.

“We’re going to have to defend better,” Edwards said.

After their first 43 games, the Pirates have allowed slightly more three goals per game. “If we can get to 2.5 goals by the end of the season, that would be good,” Edwards said.

Here’s a look at the various facets that make up the Pirates, and Edwards evaluates his team’s performance in each one of them.

OFFENSE: Currently, the Pirates are scoring an average of 2.95 goals per game to rank 12th among the AHL’s 30 teams.

“I think we’re probably a little bit surprised we’ve been able to score as much as we have,” Edwards said. “The offense is better than we thought it would be.”

Following the end of the 119-day NHL lockout earlier this month, veteran center Alexandre Bolduc, the team’s leading scorer, was called by the parent Phoenix Coyotes, but forwards Rob Klinkhammer, Chris Conner, Andy Miele and Chris Brown have been nearly as productive.

Since Bolduc left, forwards Darian Dziurznyski, Jordan Szwarz and Ethan Werek have stepped up to help fill the scoring void.

DEFENSE: At the start of the season, the eight-man defensive corps was looked upon as the team’s backbone, but the group hasn’t performed as well as expected.

“The defense is probably not as good as we hoped,” Edwards said. “I was hoping we would be a top-10 defensive team.”

Currently, the Pirates are allowing 3.02 goals per game to rank 22nd in the AHL. “That’s one area we’ve got to get better at for us not only to secure a playoff berth but to get home ice. To do anything in the playoffs, we’re going to have to be much better defensively.”

Despite the loss of Oliver Ekman-Larsson, David Rundblad and Michael Stone to the Coyotes, a potentially strong group of defensemen remain, led by Chris Summers, Brandon Gormley and the recently signed Boris Valabik.

GOALKEEPERS: Despite the call-up earlier this week of Chad Johnson, who turned in a 21-save shutout in a 4-0 win in his debut with Phoenix Tuesday night, goaltending remains a bright spot.

“I think our goaltending has won a lot of games for us,” Edwards said. “It’s put us into position to win a lot of games. To me, it’s been really good, and it’s getting better.”

During a recent six-game winning streak, rookie Mark Visentin stopped 198 of 206 shots, compiling a 1.33 goals-against average. In his two appearances with the Pirates, rookie Mike Lee, now on his second call-up from the ECHL’s Gwinnett Gladiators, has stopped 59 of 61 shots.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Special teams were a big issue during the first six weeks of the season, but the power play and the penalty kill made marked improvement during the month of December.

Three weeks ago, the Pirates ranked 11th in the AHL on the power play and 10th on the penalty kill.

“Special teams are going to have to keep getting better.” Edwards said.

Coming out of the all-star break, the Pirates rank 16th on the power play and 15th on the penalty kill.

INTANGIBLES: From the outset, one of the strengths of the Pirates has been team chemistry.

“For the most part, this group cares about one another and works hard for one another and will battle for one another,” Edwards said.

None of the Pirates currently rank among the league’s top 20 scorers, but the team has been able to score when needed the most. Twice this season, Portland rallied from three-goal, second-period deficits to pull out wins.

“What’s going to take us to where we’ve got to go is the character of this group, the makeup of our group and our chemistry,” Edwards said.

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

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