AUBURN—Early in the second period on Tuesday night, Feb. 26, the Rams put up three goals vs. the Kings, all inside a five-minute powerplay: Tanner Garand, Aiden Owens and Aiden Enck each capitalized once for Gorham in the stretch, after which the game seemed – well, no sure thing, but leaning one way. The Kings fought hard for the rest of the contest, but couldn’t stage a comeback: 4-2 Rams in the end.
“That powerplay was how we drew it up, and how we practiced,” said Rams head coach Jon Portwine. “It was exactly what we had done, preparing for this game – which made me feel really good, that the guys are paying attention…That five-minute advantage was huge, and that was the difference in the game.”
“We came in, knew we had to overcome adversity this game,” said Cole Perreault, a versatile junior who can play both forward and defense. “We came together as a group, knew what we had to do and got it done.”
The Kings, a co-op out of Gray-New Gloucester, Oak Hill, Poland and Leavitt, thus close a strong season at 11-7-1. The Kings entered the Class B tournament ranked fourth, a slot ahead of the No. 5 Rams, and thereby earned home-ice advantage (at the Norway Savings Bank Arena) for the teams’ quarterfinals bout.
When Gorham clashed with the Kings in the regular season, back on Feb. 9, the latter emerged triumphant, 3-1.
“If we won that game, it would have swapped the seeds,” Portwine said. “But, we ended up as the five-seed, they were the four-seed; they had a fantastic season. But I think we had a good gameplan coming in. We know how good their goalie was, and he was really the key. He was the guy we needed to beat, and we got it done.”
“We scouted their team a little bit,” Perreault said. “And we just pounded it away in practice, how to stop [them]. Executed it well in the game.”
The Rams held the attacking edge throughout the game, controlling the offense perhaps 60-40 and outshooting the Kings by a respectable margin – though none of that kept the home team off the board. Gorham charged onto the ice with heavy pressure, but the Kings shortly pushed back, and midway through the opening period lit the lamp first. Reese Collins did it, straight off the faceoff and assisted by Spencer Berube; Rams freshman keeper Caleb Waterman had barely a chance at the save, if any.
Gorham evened things up just two minutes later: An initial shot – a Joey Curesky try from the right side – bounced off Kings keeper Xavier Michaud, but bounced into the slot and onto the stick of Tyler Weeks, who redirected lightning-quick for a five-hole tally.
1-1 after one.
“The first goal, I was really happy for Tyler Weeks,” Portwine said. “He had a – I don’t want to say a ‘difficult’ season, but he had an up-and-down season. I know it wasn’t what he expected, and I continued to tell him that one moment, one thing could change that whole thing around. By him scoring that first goal, I hope that’s what he looks back on and remembers from his senior year. Because it was big. It was a big, big goal for us.”
Gorham kicked off the second with more heavy pressure, and just under two minutes in, the Kings gave them a helping hand, a five-minute major penalty that would prove decisive. The Rams spent the next 300 seconds – and no doubt the Kings felt every tick of the clock like so a fresh stab wound – tallying three powerplay goals.
Owens and Trevor Gray assisted on the first: Owens, deep in the Kings’ zone on the right side, shoveled outward to Gray at the right point; Gray fed over to Garand at the left post and Garand one-timed the puck past Michaud for 2-1. Just about 45 seconds later, Owens himself capitalized, zipping inward from the right side with the puck and sliding it past Michaud, 3-1.
Finally, two and half minutes after that, and with just 15 seconds remaining on the Rams’ man advantage, Enck slapped home the 4-1 notch from the top of the zone. Somehow, the shot wended through thick traffic and found the back of the net. Assists went to Nolan Gava and Alex O’Connor.
“All season long, we’ve struggled with the powerplay,” Portwine said. “Both the first group, the second group, and in practice, sometimes, it’s pretty ugly. But all of that paid off tonight. All of those hours that we spent practicing the powerplay, practicing special teams, going through and changing personnel.”
Those five minutes seemed – with Gorham already holding an offensive edge – to deliver the Rams even more momentum. Still, the Kings battled, and battled admirably: Midway through the second, and back at full-strength, the team put together a slick, high-speed centering attempt from the right corner. Trent Vaillancourt redirected on-net at the left side – but Waterman tracked the play expertly and turned in a nimble pad-save.
No, the Kings wouldn’t light the lamp again until the third had half-elapsed; when that happened, Aiden Gonzalez did the honors, assisted by Vaillancourt and Austin Taylor.
“We knew they were trying to send a guy the whole night,” Perreault said of the Rams’ defensive approach, “so we were watching for that. Our defense played amazing. Caleb played amazing; played on his head. Couldn’t have asked for a better defensive game.
The Kings didn’t score again on the night – which is not to say they didn’t try like hell to, because they did. Michaud dashed off the ice with two full minutes left on the clock, giving the Kings a man-advantage for the remainder of the contest. Waterman, though, stood strong through the ensuing barrage of shots – a barrage that, by rights, should’ve produced at least one point.
4-2 the final.
“He’s done a great job all season,” Portwine said of Waterman. “He’s been a rock back there – I’ve been blessed and lucky to have both goaltenders play exceptionally well this year. Going into this game, making the call on who was going to start in net was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make in a long time.” The Rams’ other netminder, Giuseppe Brown, is as solid as Waterman; the two have spent the season trading time between the pipes.
Portwine also took a moment to applaud one of his lines: “The second group, with Tanner Garand, Alex O’Connor, Dominic Lorello – those three actually played really well. I put them together, maybe, a month and a half ago. When I put Tanner together with those two big bodies – and Tanner’s a big body himself – it kind of sparked them, and they really started to play well. And I think this was their strongest game; they played really well.”
“Just gel,” Perreault said, asked what the Rams needed to do across the season to penetrate as deeply into the playoffs as they did. “We’ve built chemistry, built a brotherhood, became a family.”
Gorham faced No. 1 Greely in the semis on Saturday night, March 2, at the Colisee in Lewiston. The Rams lost twice to the Rangers in the regular season, once very narrowly, and once by a huge margin, so the outcome of the sides’ third meeting looked unobvious before the action got underway. Alas, despite trailing just 3-1 after two periods (their goal by Nick Gray), Gorham stumbled in the third and suffered a 10-1 defeat in the end.
Adam Birt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @CurrentSportsME.
Joey Cureskey battles toward the Kings’ net with the puck.
Alex O’Connor has played a critical roll for the Rams this winter.
Tyler Weeks kicked off Gorham’s four-goal night in the first period.
Aiden Gonzalez added one of the Kings’ two goals vs. Gorham.
Cole Perreault works along the boards for the Rams.
Andrew Topham zips forward for the Kings.
Trevor Gray looks to center the puck.
King Sam Tibbetts surveys the action, holding his position.
Nolan Gava dashes up-ice for the Rams.
Tanner Garand peels away from an encounter with a King.
Dom Lorello presses deep in the Kings’ zone.
Aiden Enck added one for Gorham vs. the Kings.