By Eric Carson
PORTLAND — They were never even supposed to be here.
The Portland hockey team was down on its luck with barely enough players to fill a roster.
But true to their namesake, the stubborn Bulldogs pulled together for a nine-win season and a playoff berth and the seventh seed.
On Saturday, the plucky Bulldogs saw their season end, as they fell to No. 10 Kennebunk, 6-3, in the preliminary round of the Western A playoffs at Portland Ice Arena. Led by Sam Guimond, the seventh-ranked Bulldogs fought back from a four-goal deficit to pull within one goal in the final period against the Rams, but ultimately ran out of steam.
Once again the Bulldogs (9-9-1) started slowly, fulfilling a pattern that has plagued them this season. However, Portland staged a furious rally in the second period and the opening moments of the third.
Guimond, who last week was named a Travis Roy Award finalist, scored a pair of goals for Portland in the comeback, and junior winger Jason Knight added a goal.
But after exerting so much energy to claw back to 4-3 at 1:58 of the third period, the wheels fell off rather quickly and the Rams (7-11-1) pulled away with a pair of goals by senior Patrick Graydon.
Perhaps capitalizing on a one-hour delay caused by a previous playoff game, Kennebunk caught Portland in a trance early,  scoring the first goal just 58 seconds after the puck dropped.
Graydon skated into the right circle and flipped what appeared to be a harmless wrister on Portland goalie Nick Sterling (23 saves). Sterling blocked the puck with his stick, but it kicked high off his blade and over his opposite shoulder for a 1-0 Kennebunk lead.
“We don’t want to make excuses,” said coach Andy Gildart. “But standing around watching the first game go to overtime wasn’t what we wanted. We were hoping for a better start. That first goal took the wind out of our sails and it took us awhile to get going.”
Portland rebounded, out-shooting the Rams 10-5 in the first period. But disaster struck early in the second.
On the power play for the first minute of the second period, Kennebunk scored a quick goal and then added another just seconds later, opening up a 3-0 lead within 45 seconds.
With a settled possession, Graydon put a rocket on net that bounced off Sterling and landed on the stick of teammate Kevin Airoldi (two goals, one assist). Just a sophomore, Airoldi flipped it home for a power-play goal and a 2-0 lead.
On the ensuing face-off, Graydon won the draw to Airoldi, who promptly skated in and stuffed the puck by Sterling for a 3-0 advantage at 14:14 of the second.
Things went from bad to worse before the Bulldogs could answer. Once again on the power play, Graydon scored his second goal of the game, taking a long pass and skating in alone on Sterling. Approaching the net, Graydon flipped the puck up high and it bounced off Sterling’s shoulder and into the back of the net for a 4-0 Kennebunk lead at just 3:40 of the second period.
The Rams’ third goal in the first four minutes of the second had Kennebunk fans chanting “it’s all over”. It may have been against any other team, but the Bulldogs dug in and fought back.
Finally on the power play, Portland defensemen Scott Briggs stole the puck and fed Guimond streaking ahead in transition. Guimond, Portland’s all-time second-leading point scorer, skated in and beat Kennebunk goalie Jordan Kadlick (22 saves) high to his glove side to get Portland on the board at 4-1.
Minutes later, Portland looked as though it would pull within two goals when Guimond found the crafty Greg Leborgne in full stride at the blue line. Leborgne streaked in and put a great shot on goal that was deflected high. Leborgne swatted at the airborne puck but still couldn’t get it past Kadlick.
Just moments later, Guimond was at it again, finding K.R. Jurgelevich on the wing for a free slapper at the net. Kadlick blocked the offering, but Knight was there to tuck it home and pull the Bulldogs within a pair, 4-2, with five minutes left in the second period.
“It seems like we always wait until the third period to start putting pucks in the net,” said Guimond. “But I told the guys after the first intermission that we couldn’t wait for the third this game. We knew if we lost this would be our last game. We had to put it all on the line. We got behind but we found a way to battle back. Those last few goals at the end hurt.”
The second period would end at 4-2, but Guimond struck again just inside the third quarter to energize the arena and turn what looked like a blowout into a one-goal game with plenty of time left.
Guimond bull-rushed right down the center of the ice and blasted a shot that handcuffed Kadlick and dropped at his skates. Leborgne came by and hacked at it to no avail, but Guimond reappeared and tucked it home for his second goal and it was 4-3 at 1:58 of the third.
“(Guimond’s) a Travis Roy finalist,” said Gildart. “You can’t replace a player like that. He’s the one that comes out against the top tier teams and has the goal, has the assist. He can play against the top competition in this state. He’s a special player.”
The score remained 4-3 for nine intense minutes before Graydon surprised Sterling with a quick shot from the blue line that found a way into the net and deflated the Portland charges.
Graydon added another goal 25 seconds later on the power play and it was 6-3 Kennebunk at 12:30 of the third.
The Bulldogs’ improbable season was over in a flash.
“We’ve had lapses all season and had to dig ourselves out from behind most of the time,” said Gildart. “We’ve been riding that roller coaster all year. But these guys battle. It’s that Portland mentality. People wrote this team off to start the season because our numbers were down, but our seniors stepped up and that’s what got us nine wins and a tie. That’s what got us here. We got a bunch of grinders on this team. They know what they are capable of and they come out every night and gave all they got.”