Cheverus senior Caroline Ray fires a shot during the Stags’ 4-0 win at Portland/Deering Saturday.

Chris Lambert photos.

More photos below.

PORTLAND—When a local legend becomes your head coach, you can expect to improve, but the Cheverus girls have surprised even themselves this winter with their progression and have set the stage for bigger things to come.

The Stags, coached this winter by former Portland Pirates standout Kent Hulst, have already eclipsed last year’s win total and Saturday afternoon at Troubh Ice Arena, Cheverus, a co-op team which also includes four players from Kennebunk and another from Old Orchard Beach, took a 1-0 lead over Portland/Deering when senior standout Jill Hannigan buried a shot in front.

The Stags added to their lead later in the first when Hannigan set up senior Sophia Giancotti for a 2-0 advantage which held into the second period.

Where Portland/Deering came to life.

The hosts peppered Cheverus senior goalie Taylor Courtois with several great looks, but Courtois stopped every one and with 4:18 to go in the period, the Stags took a 3-0 lead when sophomore Victoria Lemieux scored her first goal on a rebound.

Cheverus got additional breathing room when senior Caroline Ray rebounded a loose puck into the net with 10:33 remaining and the Stags went on to a 4-0 victory which was closer than the final score indicated.

Cheverus got goals from four different players and improved to 9-2, extended its win streak to seven games and dropped Portland/Deering to 2-7 in the process.

“It’s nice when that line can get a goal right off the bat and get the momentum going, especially against a rival school,” Hulst said. “Both teams played good hockey today. It was a good game.”

On the rise

Both teams have shown improvement this winter.

Portland/Deering started with losses at Scarborough (8-1) and at home to Biddeford (6-0), then beat visiting Winslow (5-3) and Mt. Ararat/Morse (3-1) to match last year’s win total. After a 10-0 loss at Falmouth, Portland/Deering was defeated by host Cape Elizabeth/Waynflete/South Portland (5-1), visiting St. Dom’s (11-1) and visiting Scarborough (6-0).

Cheverus opened with wins at York (7-2) and at home over Biddeford (5-0). After losing at St. Dom’s (10-2) and at home to Falmouth (5-2), the Stags downed visiting Winslow (8-3), Gorham (6-0) and Cape Elizabeth/Waynflete/South Portland (3-1), then won at Brunswick (4-1) and Gorham/Bonny Eagle (8-2) before downing visiting Mt. Ararat/Morse (4-2) in their most recent outing, three days before Christmas.

Last winter, Cheverus won both games against Portland/Deering, 8-2 and 6-1.

Wednesday, Portland/Deering sought its first win over Cheverus since Dec. 22, 2012 (6-3), but the Stags took care of business.

Just 12 seconds in, Giancotti got the puck in front to Hannigan, who scored for a quick 1-0 lead.

“I don’t think they were expecting us to come out as hard as we did,” Hannigan said. “I shot low. That’s the first time I think I’ve shot low all season and it worked. We’ve been on a winning streak. When we score first and get off to a really good start, it’s good for us. It keeps our energy level up.”

Portland/Deering was staggered.

“That goal was big,” said Portland/Deering coach Tim Murphy. “Even the games we’ve won, we’ve been down a goal in the first few minutes and we can’t be. I decided to start my seniors and they did a great job the first 11 seconds, then in the 12th second, the puck came to their best scorer.”

Cheverus doubled its lead with 6:35 to play in the first period when Hannigan set up Giancotti for a goal (Ray was also credited with an assist).

In the second period, Portland/Deering had ample opportunity to answer, but Courtois denied Lauren McIntyre one-on-one, Inez Braceras shot wide of an open net and McIntyre was robbed by Courtois again.

“Taylor’s pretty good,” Hannigan said. “She keeps us in there.”

“We have to make sure Taylor’s tested,” Hulst said. “She withstood the test today. We’re going to need that the remainder of the season.”

Portland/Deering was left frustrated.

“(Courtois) did a really good job keeping us out of the net,” said Murphy. “We couldn’t solve her. We practice shooting and we practice where we want to put the puck. You can only do that so long. The girls have to execute. The execution isn’t there. One goal changes everything, but when you can’t score and you hit the goalie, it’s tough.”

With 4:18 to play in the second, Cheverus turned momentum for good when a shot from freshman Elizabeth Hodgkins was saved by Portland/Deering goalie Anna Freund, but Lemieux was there to score on the rebound for a 3-0 lead.

With 10:33 remaining in the third, Ray scored on a rebound for the final goal and the Stags went on to a 4-0 victory.

Cheverus produced four different goal scorers in the win.

“We have multiple girls who can put the puck in the net,” Hulst said. “A lot of girls got ice time today. They worked hard and we were rewarded.”

Hannigan said following the game that she believes Hulst has been a big part of the Stags’ turnaround.

“He’s been my coach since I was six,” Hannigan said. “I grew up skating with his daughter. The girls weren’t expecting such a different dynamic. He has such a strong authority. We look up to him a lot. He came in with a whole different coaching method. It’s interesting to see how the girls have responded.”

Thinking playoffs

Portland/Deering hopes to snap its skid Saturday when Gorham/Bonny Eagle pays a visit. A trip to Brunswick follows on Monday.

“I’ve got good seniors and the kids coming up are really good,” Murphy said. “It will just take time. We’re still building. It will take another year. We’re looking forward to the rest of the schedule.”

Cheverus has a big test Saturday at Scarborough, then the Stags host the Red Storm Tuesday.

Rest assured, they’re ready to measure themselves against one of the state’s best programs.

“We know we have a hard game coming up and we look forward to it,” Hannigan said. “We want to win. We have to keep working hard and focus more in practice.”

“We’re making strides every game we play,” Hulst said. “There are still things we need to work on to be able to go against Scarborough. I’m pleasantly surprised. I’m very excited. The girls listen and learn. As long as they don’t make the same mistakes, we’ll be OK. We have to avoid giving the puck away, play our systems right and do the simple things.”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

Cheverus senior goalie Taylor Courtois makes a save.

Portland/Deering’s Mia Thurston shoots as Cheverus freshman Caitlin Wolff defends.

Cheverus senior Jill Hannigan and Portland/Deering’s Kaylyn Madore battle along the boards.

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