They may have come for the postgame fireworks, or as a prelude to a festive New Year’s Eve celebration or even for the hockey.

Whatever their reason, spectators assembled inside Cross Insurance Arena early Wednesday evening in a manner not seen since Opening Night.

“When we have nights like that when the stands are full,” said Portland Pirates forward Brendan Shinnimin, “it’s like having a sixth man out there. You feel the energy and use it to your advantage.”

The Pirates showed their appreciation with one of their best games of the season, beating Hartford 3-1 before a crowd of 4,686 for their third American Hockey League victory in four games.

The only blemish in that streak was a 3-1 loss to this same Wolf Pack team Saturday night in Hartford.

“We didn’t generate as much (offense) in Hartford,” said Coach Ray Edwards. “Either team could have won that game, but they scored on their chances. (Wednesday night), I thought we generated more opportunities. The power play looked as good as it’s looked all year.”

Indeed, it was Shinnimin who scored the game-winner with 23 seconds remaining in a second-period power play on a shot from the right circle after Portland’s cross-ice passes had Hartford goalie Mackenzie Skapski scrambling from post to post. Evan Oberg and Andrew Campbell assisted, with Campbell forsaking a clear shot from the top of the left circle because he knew Skapski was on the move.

“It looked like (Campbell) was going to shoot it, but he made a nice pass and I’m pretty thankful he gave it to me,” Shinnimin said. “I caught the goalie coming across, in the five-hole. It feels good to get one on the power play, for sure.”

The Pirates (17-16) entered the game ranked 25th of 30 AHL teams on the power play, having converted 17 times in 130 opportunities – and that includes a pair of power-play goals in Sunday’s 3-0 victory at Manchester, one of them an empty-netter.

“We’ve done a really good job off the rush and in our breakouts of getting into the (offensive) zone, but it’s been our in-zone play that we’ve struggled on,” Shinnimin said. “We’re not getting two or three (goals) a night, but we’re finding ways to get one here and there. It’s a start. We want to build off it. The more confidence we have on the power play the more we’ll score.”

Shinnimin’s sixth goal of the season gave Portland a 2-1 lead. It remained that way until five seconds remained, when Lucas Lessio was awarded a goal following a stick-breaking slash by Hartford defender Conor Allen as the Pirate was racing toward the Wolf Pack’s empty net.

Mike McKenna made 22 saves for the Pirates, who never trailed and outshot Hartford 27-23. His two biggest came on consecutive shots – from the left point and on the rebound – that thumped against the thick pad covering his right leg with Hartford on a power play early in the third.

“He’s been rock-solid for us all year,” Campbell said of McKenna. “We know that he’s going to make all the routine saves and come up with some big saves as well. It just gives confidence to the group knowing that he’s back there.”

After a scoreless first period, the Pirates took the lead when Eric Selleck came down on a 2-on-1 break and fired a shot that caught a piece of Skapski before tumbling over the line. Campbell and Corey Trivino assisted.

The Wolf Pack (17-15) tied it two minutes later when Chris Bourque scored his 13th of the season on a shot just inside the right post from high in the slot. Marek Hrivik assisted.

Hartford failed to convert any of three power-play opportunities. The Pirates are second in the AHL in the penalty kill, having allowed only 19 goals in 150 attempts while scoring eight short-handed goals themselves.

“We love our defense, we love our goaltending,” Edwards said. “But we’ve got to be better up front. We’ve got to find a way to generate more (offense).”

To that end, Edwards moved Jordon Southorn from defense to wing on a line with veteran Francis Wathier and rookie Dan O’Donoghue and was pleased with the results.

Southorn “is big, he’s strong, he can skate, he’s got offensive instincts,” Edwards said. “We’re short up front so it was something we thought we’d try to do. I thought he was really good.”

The game also marked the return of forwards Alexandre Bolduc (from the NHL Coyotes) and Jordan Szwarz, who missed six weeks with a lower-body injury.

“They’re both leaders and both play a lot of minutes for us,” Campbell said. “They contribute on and off the ice to our team, so it was definitely a boost getting those two guys back.”

The Pirates return to action this weekend, hosting Springfield Friday night and Providence on Saturday night as they continue a five-game homestand before a road trip that includes their first trip to the Canadian Maritimes.