PORTLAND—Besides parking tickets, there’s always one other thing you can count on from Portland. The athletes from America’s third oldest public high school have never been an easy out regardless of the sport.

For a perfect example, consider the undermanned Bulldogs boys’ hockey charges this season. With 18 players (just six seniors), including two or three true hockey players in terms of years on skates and hours on ice in the mix, second-year coach Andy Gildart cobbled together a roster filled out with football or lacrosse players willing to lend a hand and for the second straight season qualified for the playoffs.

In fact, after starting out 2-5, the Bulldogs banded together, won five of six and finished the regular season 9-9, good for the fifth-seed for the Western A tournament. This remarkable turnaround came to sudden halt on Saturday afternoon, but not without some serious drama and gritty play from the Bulldogs.

Trailing 1-0 after the first period, Portland scored the next two goals of the game in a 22-second span to end the second and begin the third and take a 2-1 lead, before the fourth-ranked South Portland Red Riots rallied with five minutes to play for a pair of quick goals and downed the Bulldogs 3-2 at the Portland Ice Arena.

“I’m proud of my guys,” said Gildart. “We didn’t have a lot of highlight type plays or goals this season, but we had a tough group that’s played in big games in other sports and knew what it took to compete. That type of effort is what got us here to a playoff game at the PIA.”

Portland (9-10) junior Eddie Apon nearly skated his team to the Colisee for next weekend’s semifinal with pure speed that drew several penalties and a pair of goals that staked the Blue to a 2-1 advantage 12 seconds into the third that stood for more than 10 minutes of hard-fought action against South Portland (15-4).

Portland senior captains Scott Briggs and Jason Knight joined Apon on the front line and forced the Red Riots into eight penalties in the game, most diving to clean out one of the three wingers skating on by into the zone looking to score.

“I knew it was going to be this type of game,” said South Portland coach Joe Robinson. “We have very similar types of teams. Hardworking. Not a lot of numbers. Andy (Gildart) does a great job coaching that team. I just had a feeling it was going to come right down to the end.”

Still, down just one score late in the second period at even strength but with one representative for each team in the box, Apon received a sweet cross-crease pass from junior Bronson Guimond while camped out at the opposite post and beat South Portland sophomore goalie Dominic Desjardins (31 saves) to tie the score 1-1 with 25 seconds left in the second.

This event forced a frustrated Red Riots team to commit two more penalties within 23 seconds of each other to close out the period and put the Bulldogs on the two-man advantage for the first 1:37 of the third and on the power play for the first two minutes. But Apon would need only 12 seconds to give Portland the lead, taking the opening draw of the final period, skating around the Red Riots last line of defense near the crowd-side boards and knifing in across the crease for his second goal to make it 2-1 at 14:48 of the third.

The score would remain 2-1 in favor of the Bulldogs until a penalty on Briggs with 5:57 left put the Red Riots on the advantage and led to a junior Josh Cobb goal that tied the game up once again, 2-2, with 4:13 remaining.

Things went from bad to worse three minutes later for the Bulldogs, when South Portland junior defenseman Zach Horton stole the puck and sent a slapper on Portland freshman goalie Jon Gatti (26 saves) that circled its way out to the left post. Fighting to clear the zone and force South Portland to re-set the offense, the bouncing puck never made it over the blue line and instead landed on the stick of Red Riots freshmen Nick Whitten in the high slot just above the left circle. Whitten wheeled and lifted a crisp wrister into the back of the net with 1:14 left in the game for his second goal to help the Red Riots advance to the next round (they’ll face either No. 1 Biddeford or No. 8 Scarborough) with a dramatic 3-2, come-from-behind victory over a gritty Portland team that left with nothing to hang its head about except for the inevitable disappointment of losing the last game of the season.

“The 4-5 game is always one of the best of the tournament,” said Gildart. “The teams are usually evenly matched and this was a great game today. We only have four or five kids on this team that came up through the ranks playing hockey. South Portland has a nice little core group that came up together. That was the difference today. They skated better and moved the puck around better. We had trouble getting out to the point shots and that hurt us.”

The graduations of Briggs and Knight will hit Portland the hardest, with the two forwards combining for 27 goals and 57 of the team’s 157 points on the season. With limited skaters available, every graduation counts and Gildart’s Bulldogs will miss seniors Ben Dibiase, Ethan Duvall, and Karl Fisher.

But there’s plenty of good news left, including the return of Apon (27 points) and Guimond (21 points), not to mention three more years of stellar play between the pipes still to come from Gatti.

Portland junior Bronson Guimond and South Portland junior Robert Hannigan prepare for a huge collision Saturday in the teams’ Western A quarterfinal round playoff game. The Bulldogs took a third period lead, but couldn’t hold on, falling 3-2.

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