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AHL Weekly: Pirates eyeing playoffs

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … Struggling to find their identity, the Portland Pirates got out to a tough start this season, winning just five of their first 15 games (5-10-0-0) and dropping into the Atlantic Division’s cellar. But since mid-November, the Pirates have hit their stride and are now making noise in the thick of a tight postseason race.

Beginning with a 6-3 win over Rochester at HSBC Arena in Buffalo on Nov. 12, the Pirates show an impressive 22-6-5-2 record in their last 34 games, good for a .750 points percentage in that span. The surge has lifted Portland to 27-16-5-2 (61 points) overall and puts them fourth in the Atlantic Division, just five points back of first-place Worcester. The Pirates are currently riding a season-high six-game winning streak, their longest since capturing eight in a row from Oct. 31 to Nov. 19, 2008.

Under head coach Kevin Dineen, who collected his 200th career regular-season victory on Friday at Providence, the Pirates rank eighth in the AHL in both goals per game (3.02) and fewest goals allowed per contest (2.66).

Portland could be looking at becoming the first team in more than 30 years to boast consecutive AHL Rookies of the Year. Tyler Ennis, a first-round draft pick (26th overall) by the parent Buffalo Sabres in 2008, has appeared in all 50 games thus far for the Pirates, and his 30 assists and 46 points are both tops among AHL rookies to date. Last year’s Garrett Award recipient, Nathan Gerbe, has battled the injury bug in his sophomore season but still shows 28 points (8-20-28) in 30 games for Portland.

Ennis and fifth-year winger Mark Mancari (20-29-49) have combined for nearly a quarter of the team’s points this season. Mancari, a two-time AHL All-Star, clinched his fourth straight 20-goal season on Saturday and is part of a stable of veteran forwards providing offensive support and leadership on the Pirates roster, including Jeff Cowan (14-8-22), Kyle Wanvig (9-13-22), Brad Larsen (7-4-11 in 28 games) and Cody McCormick, who has set career highs with 10 goals and 17 points on the year.

Second-year pro Derek Whitmore (10-11-21) is already just one shy of his rookie totals in both goals and points. Rookie Philip Gogulla (6-14-20), a second-round draft pick in 2005, will represent his native Germany in the upcoming 2010 Olympics. On the blue line, third-year defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani paces the Pirates’ rearguards with 23 points (4-19-23) in 36 contests, and former second-round draft pick Mike Weber has put up a team-best plus-17 rating to go along with his 13 points (1-12-13) in 50 games.

Goaltender Jhonas Enroth, the 21-year-old Stockholm native, is 20-14-1 with four shutouts in 35 appearances, including stopping 75 of 76 shots in two victories last weekend.

The Pirates, who are 22-11-4-2 against Atlantic Division foes but just 5-5-1-0 outside their division, play 10 of their next 14 games against non-division squads. The stretch begins this weekend when Syracuse and Adirondack visit the Cumberland County Civic Center.

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LET’S STAY TOGETHER … Hamilton’s trio of Brock Trotter, David Desharnais and Ryan White, who have combined for 121 points and a plus-39 rating for the Bulldogs this season, all earned an NHL recall to parent-club Montreal on Friday. The threesome spent time on a line together for the Canadiens over the weekend and combined for nine shots on goal in a 5-3 win over Pittsburgh on Saturday and a 3-0 loss to Boston on Sunday.

Desharnais was riding a 12-game scoring streak (2-16-18) for the Bulldogs prior to his recall, while Trotter made his NHL debut after registering three goals and two assists in his last two games for Hamilton.

Altogether, 16 different skaters have played for both Montreal and Hamilton during the 2009-10 season, totaling 262 NHL games.

OLYMPIC FEVER … Abbotsford Heat head coach Jim Playfair participated in the Olympic torch relay on Sunday as it passed through Abbotsford. A native of Fort St. James, B.C., Playfair lit the flame and helped the relay on one of its final legs before arriving in nearby Vancouver for the opening of the Olympic Games this Friday evening.

After a two-game set with Toronto at the Entertainment & Sports Centre on Monday and Tuesday, the Heat embark on a season-high nine game road trip while the Olympics take over the region. Following Tuesday’s contest, Abbotsford will not play at home again until a date with Providence on Mar. 2.

P-BRUINS CLAWING BACK … Providence, which has been near the bottom of the Atlantic Division despite hovering close to the .500 mark all season, has won four of its last five games to pull back above the break-even plateau (25-24-3-0). The Bruins have not missed the Calder Cup Playoffs since 1998 and currently sit four points back of Hartford for what would be the final postseason entry in the conference.

The Bruins’ offense has come to life during the recent surge, beginning with 8-2 and 6-0 victories over Springfield on Jan. 30-31. After a 3-0 loss to Portland on Friday, the B’s posted a 5-3 victory at Worcester on Saturday and topped the Sharks again, 6-3, on Sunday in Providence. 2010 AHL All-Star Mikko Lehtonen (5-4-9) and Trent Whitfield (4-5-9) have paced the attack with nine points apiece over the last five games, while Brad Marchand shows nine points (2-7-9) in eight contests since returning from injury.

ETC. … 2010 AHL All-Stars Justin Peters and Anton Khudobin earned wins in their NHL debuts last week; Peters stopped 34 of 35 shots for Carolina in a 3-1 victory over the N.Y. Islanders on Saturday, while Khudobin made a perfect relief appearance on Thursday vs. Edmonton, then stopped 38 of 39 Philadelphia shots in his first start on Saturday… Milwaukee rookie Colin Wilson has netted a goal in four straight games (4-3-7), the longest active streak in the AHL, and shows a point in his last seven outings (5-4-9)… Texas rookie Travis Morin has nine goals and 17 points in his last 15 games, vaulting him to the team lead with 34 points in 51 tilts overall (13-21-34)… Thirteen of Lowell rookie Nick Palmieri’s team-leading 17 goals have come on home ice… Jerome Samson scored twice in the first 60 seconds of Albany’s 7-6 overtime win vs. Springfield on Saturday… Alexander Salak made an AHL season-high 53 saves in Rochester’s 5-4 win over Binghamton on Saturday night… With that victory, the Amerks improved to 16-3-0-0 against the AHL’s other four teams from New York… Bridgeport had gone 22 consecutive games without scoring more than three goals before Saturday’s 6-4 win over Manchester… Hartford’s 5-1 win at Norfolk on Saturday was its first regulation victory since Jan. 8 at Worcester, a four-week stretch that included four overtime wins… Syracuse’s power play went 7-for-17 (41.2 percent) in three victories last week, helping push the Crunch’s winning streak to six games… After a 4-0 win over San Antonio on Feb. 3, Hamilton is 13-2-0-1 against the West Division this season… Hershey extended its home winning streak to 17 games on Sunday with a 5-4 decision over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton; the Bears are the first AHL team to post 80 points through the season’s first 50 games since the 1992-93 Binghamton Rangers, who went on to set the league records for wins (57) and points (124).