Sunday afternoon, the ledger will show the Pirates suffered a 3-2 setback to the Norfolk Admirals in a shootout when Jesse Blacker potted the winning goal in the post-overtime skills competition — an important win for the visitors as they chase the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

But the loss for the Pirates was more than their seventh consecutive game without a win. They skated well. They passed well. And they displayed an intensity that had been missing in recent games.

“Coming off the game (Saturday against Manchester), where it got pretty chippy … For some reason I think that energized us a little bit more,” Pirates’ forward Brett Hextall said. “Feeling that intensity again, I think we brought it a little bit more (Saturday) than we had the past few games.”

“It was a meaningful game, we knew there was something on the line,” Portland head coach Ray Edwards said. “I don’t know if that was it. To me, the Hershey game and this game were probably our two best games. I was proud of the effort.”

For a team already looking ahead to some tough offseason personnel decisions, the Pirates have a chance to see a handful of players on what amounts to an extended tryout to finish out the season. It also helps the players to face a team in a meaningful game.

“When you get on the ice, we’re all competitors, and once you hit the ice it’s a bit easier,” Hextall said. “Before that, it takes a little bit of effort, to be honest, to get ready for games. But we’re competitors, we have a job to do, we know how to do it.”

“I don’t know if it’s cohesive yet, but we played a much better game,” Edwards said.

It was a pair of players who have been here all season that made the biggest difference at a crucial time Sunday.

With time ticking off the clock in the third period, Lucas Lessio got a stick on a shot from Cade Fairchild in the right circle as captain Jordan Szwarz ran a screen in front of Norfolk keeper Brad Thiessen. The puck flopped past Szwarz off Lessio’s tip and past Thiessen with 5.6 seconds remaining in regulation to send the game into overtime.

“Just to score that goal felt good,” Edwards said. “Just to get the confidence, just to get feeling better … Everybody, the whole bench was excited. You’d never know you were two games away from being done.”

Despite a handful of chances in overtime, the Pirates couldn’t solve Thiessen.

The win keeps Norfolk in the thick of the race for the playoffs. With the win, the Admirals have 86 points. Hershey, to which the Pirates lost earlier in the week, is also at 86 after an overtime win over Binghamton on Sunday.

Portland got the start it wanted Sunday. After keeper Chris Rawlings turned back a pair of early Norfolk shots, Brett Hextall made it 1-0 for the home team with his 11th goal of the season, a snapper from the right circle that beat Thiessen on the blocker side. Andy Miele picked up an assist on the marker, his 43rd of the season.

Sebastian Stalberg had a chance to make it 2-0 in short order, but he fired the puck into the goalie as he tried to finish a 2-on-1 down low with a nearly open cage.

The Admirals evened things up at 11:34 of the first when Emerson Etem finished a feed from Andre Petersson in tight. Defensively, the Pirates clamped down, allowing only six shits to reach Rawlings in the opening 20 minutes.

The Pirates dominated the early part of the second period but had nothing to show for it on the scoreboard, and the Admirals made them pay in the closing stages of the frame. Nic Kerdiles swiped the puck from Stalberg in the high slot, wheeled and fired a wrister from there and beat Rawlings 5-hole with 1:38 to play to put Norfolk on top 2-1. The goal was Kerdiles’ first AHL goal in his third game.


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