Players left the building in a somber state, many choosing to look to the ground or stare blankly forward. Equipment managers came and went with bags slung over their shoulders — but behind them, through the open door to the locker room, was silence.
“It’s not pretty right now,” Pirates coach Ray Edwards said. “There’s a lot of soul-searching to do. We’re going to have to dig down here and figure out what the hell happened this weekend.”
The latest loss was particularly back-breaking for Portland. Ahead by three just two minutes into the second period against Manchester on Sunday, the wheels fell off. The Monarchs scored six consecutive unanswered goals over the next 38 minutes and skated off with a 7-4 victory, their fifth win in six games and fifth in seven games against the Pirates this season.
“We were up 4-1 in the game, and you could just feel it,” Edwards said. “You can talk on the bench all you want about details, and being tough and helping each other. You can imagine what we’re saying out there, trying to keep the guys focused, but you can just sense that they’re tight, and you can just feel it.”
One bad loss in a stretch of otherwise solid games can be expected from time to time, even from the best of teams.
But Sunday’s game was no aberration.
The Pirates have yet to win on home ice in 2014. They’ve won only three games since January 1, and haven’t won in regulation in 11 games. The three-game homestand Sunday’s loss completed was the team’s worst three-games-in-three-days stretch at home in at least seven years. Portland allowed 21 goals in the three games. Goalie Mark Visentin allowed 11 of those goals. Louis Domingue, the other 10.
“Last weekend, we took four out of six points against two of the top teams, and we got points in every game,” Edwards said. “We had some deficiencies in those games, but I don’t know. I didn’t see this coming. I didn’t see giving up 21 goals in three games, losing leads. I don’t know what it is, but we have to find some answers.”
Physically, there are plenty of things for the team to work on. But the team’s problem, Edwards said, is primarily internal.
“Mental, mental — we had the game in control, right where we wanted it,” Edwards said. “We’re mentally weak right now.”
Case in point: The Pirates held a 4-1 lead after a Tobias Rieder goal at 2:00 of the second period. That goal followed strikes from Chris Brown, Brandon McMillan and Andy Miele in the first period, and Portland was in control.
“We just let them back in the game,” Edwards said. “They get a little bit of momentum, and we can’t stop it. It’s a mental situation. We’ve got to be tougher than what we showed.”
The first crack in the armor came at 10:55 of the second, as Tanner Pearson converted on a power play for Manchester. Ian O’Connor made it 4-3 with an even-strength tally at 16:23, but the Pirates escaped the middle frame with their one-goal lead intact.
“They came hard, but you’ve got to understand that’s going to happen — we’ve seen it happen before,” Edwards said. “We didn’t handle it. We stopped moving, we stopped skating, we stopped talking, we stopped playing.”
The third period was a Portland nightmare.
Colin Miller tied the game at 3:45. Zach O’Brien gave Manchester its first lead of the contest at 5:29, and the Monarchs went ahead by two 19 seconds later on a Hunter Bishop strike.
Domingue, who started the game after being pulled in a 7-1 loss to Binghamton a night earlier, was rattled. He turned back toward his cage and slammed his stick against the crossbar of the cage. Twice. The wooden shaft shattered.
Domingue skated off the ice in disgust as Visentin replaced him in the blue paint for the remainder of the game.
“It’s ridiculous,” Edwards said. “We’re professional; we don’t act like that. I don’t care what the situation is — you don’t act like that. Professional athletes, it’s inexcusable to act like that. I understand the frustration, but we’ve got to harness it better than that.”
Visentin allowed one more goal on eight shots as the Monarchs rolled out of town with the win, leaving in their wake a dejected squad still searching for answers.
“I don’t know what the heck is going on with our group, but that’s just an unacceptable weekend,” Edwards said. “I don’t know how else to say it.”