PORTLAND — If you stumble, there is not a whole lot of time to recover.

As the Portland Pirates begin their qualifying playoff round tonight against Manitoba, the Pirates will try to avoid that misstep that could bring their playoff hopes to a quick end.

“There are key moments in a game when the game is won or lost,” said Pirates coach Tim Army. “We have to make sure we seize that moment. You have to have a sense when it is. It can happen at any moment. You have to take charge of the game.”

The margin of error is significantly less in the second season. Every mistake, letdown, and lapse can be magnified and costly. Playoff hockey is often won because of mistakes. In a short best-of-three series, those game-breaking moments are even more critical.

Army hopes they can avoid stumbling against a Moose team brimming with confidence. The Pirates and Moose play tonight at 7:05 p.m. and compete again Friday at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland. If needed, the series finale is Sunday at 6:05 p.m.

“You’ve got to come out really alert,” said Army. “You’ve got to be right on top of your game. You’re going to make mistakes. That’s going to happen in a fast game. You’ve got to rely on your awareness. You’ve got to rely on your positioning to get you out of trouble when you get into trouble. That’s why we’ll have to be very alert as a group.”

The Pirates have been plagued all year by critical moments that have turned the tide in a hockey game. Whether it is undisciplined penalties, a lapse in effort, breakdowns defensively or costly turnovers, the Pirates found ways to lose their grip on a game. Just recently, they let Albany back into a game after being up 3-1, allowing a bad goal late in the second. They fell behind early in the third and settled for a 4-4 tie, thanks to a late goal in regulation. Last Sunday, they were up 1-0 against an already eliminated Saint John club, but let the Flames tie it early in the first. Then a bad bounce produced a Flame game-winner in the third and another Pirate loss that shouldn’t have been.

“I like a lot of things that we did over the last five or six games,” said Army, who announced his starting goaltender to the team Wednesday but won’t make it public until game time Thursday. “We haven’t got much to show for it. I think we’ve got to do a better job at critical stages of the game. I think we’ve shored things up in some areas, but I think we’ve got to be alert in all situations. I think that’s what’s plagued us the last month of the year.”

Over the final month of the season, Portland went just 4-7-5. The Pirates played well enough to win most games but made enough mistakes to lose most of them. It is a trend that followed the team the entire year. Portland only won back-to-back games nine times all year and won three straight twice. Most of those consecutive wins came during a stretch in December and January where Portland went 11-4-1. They won back-to-back twice, had a string of three straight and four consecutive wins during that run.

With playoff positioning at stake, the Pirates floundered at times but also seemed to get on track with some strong performances.

“We’ve been trying to play a good defensive game before the playoffs,” said forward Mark Murphy. “That’s been our plan down the stretch. Hopefully, we’ve got enough practice at it.”

The Pirates have played well when the urgency has been there. Nothing brings that kind of pressure like a tight playoff series. Two years ago, when Portland was in the playoff last, the bulk of the club had limited or no playoff experience at the AHL level. This year, the Pirates have a little more playoff seasoning, except in goal where neither goaltender has played an AHL playoff game. Many of the players like Murphy, Matt Pettinger, Mike Farrell and Graham Mink that got their first taste of the AHL playoff in the three-game sweep two years are back but are joined by experienced players like Peter and Chris Ferraro, Colin Forbes and Todd Rohloff.

“We’ve got a lot of experience,” said Murphy. “Hopefully that will help. Hopefully that will come through.”

Manitoba is one of the hotter teams in the league coming into the postseason. The Moose beat Worcester in the qualifying round last year. So they have some experience on their side as well. Manitoba has gone 15-5-2 down the stretch and has played a very sound defensive game in that span, allowing just 45 goals in the last 20 games. They have a balanced attack, a hot goaltender in Tyler Moss and a 1-1-2 record against Portland this season. A 2-2 tie and a 2-1 win over Portland came just two weeks ago in Manitoba.

“They’re a good transition team,” said Army. “We’ll have to be disciplined. They’ll be a tough team to play against. They’re fast. They’re disciplined. They’ve got excellent goaltending. They’ve got some guys that can hurt you if you get sloppy in transition. We saw that in Manitoba a couple of weeks ago. We’ll have to be on our game. There’s no room for sloppiness.”

The Pirates hope the strong showing they had down the stretch are strong signs of the type of playoff game they can produce.

“I’ve liked the way that we’ve played the last five or six games,” said Army. “We are coming out of it. We haven’t finished things off completely, but we’ve met some good goaltenders. We’re playing well defensively. The penalty kill is good. The power play is coming around. Those are important things that make you win in the playoffs, and they’re rounding into form.”

With a team loaded with potential, the Pirates have been trying to build for this time of the year for 80 games. Now its showtime.

“At first we had to secure a playoff spot,” said Rohloff. “Now coming out of a slump, we’ve fortunately got home ice in the first round. It’s two-out-of-three, anything goes. We’re coming to play.”

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