Portland/Deering’s girls’ hockey team celebrates a goal during Saturday night’s hard-fought 3-2 victory over Cape Elizabeth/Waynflete/South Portland in a South Region semifinal. Portland/Deering advanced to the regional final for the first time where it will face Cheverus/Kennebunk Wednesday.

Mike Strout photos.

More photos below.

PORTLAND—The Portland/Deering girls’ hockey team is in the midst of the most successful season in program history and the squad isn’t ready to go home yet.

Saturday evening at Troubh Ice Arena, Portland/Deering, the No. 2 seed in the South Region, dug an early hole against third-ranked Cape Elizabeth/Waynflete/South Portland, but answered the bell, rallied and made history in the process.

Cape Elizabeth/Waynflete/SP shot to a quick, confidence-building 2-0 lead, as junior standout Sophie Venditti (a South Portland student) scored at 3:33 and junior Abby Ekedahl added a goal at 5:52.

Portland/Deering got off the canvas and pulled within 2-1 when freshman Caroline Lerch scored on a rush with 2:11 left in the first period and when senior Kit Rosmus buried a rebound at 4:14 of the second period, the hosts were even, 2-2.

The decisive goal came 24 seconds into the third period, when Lerch scored out of a scrum and after some anxious moments late, Portland/Deering held on for a palpitating 3-2 victory.

Portland/Deering improved to 14-5, ending Cape Elizabeth/Waynflete/South Portland’s year at 10-9-1 and advanced to the regional final for the first time, where it will battle rival and top-ranked Cheverus/Kennebunk (18-1) Wednesday at a time to be announced at the Colisee in Lewiston.

“We told the girls on the bench it wasn’t the first time we’ve been down two goals,” said Portland/Deering first-year coach Tom Clifford. “We were familiar with what we had to do. We knew we had to dig a little deeper.” 

First time

Portland/Deering won just once in 18 games in 2016-17, but turned around this winter and under Clifford, put together the program’s best record to date, 13-5, which included handing rival Cheverus/Kennebunk its only loss.

Portland/Deering’s record gave it the number two seed in the South Region and with it, a bye into the semifinals.

Cape Elizabeth/Waynflete/SP has been a playoff regular and after going 9-8-1 this winter, good for the No. 3 seed in the region, the squad eliminated sixth-ranked Falmouth in a weather-delayed quarterfinal game on Thursday, 4-3, to advance.

The teams split during the regular season, with Portland/Deering taking a 5-0 decision Dec. 16 and Cape Elizabeth/Waynflete/SP returning the favor with a 3-2 triumph Jan. 15.

The squads had never met in the postseason.

Saturday, they penned a memorable first chapter.

While Portland/Deering had the first good scoring chance, Emily Demers was denied by Cape Elizabeth/Waynflete/SP senior goalie Abby Joy and it wasn’t long before the visitors got the jump.

At 3:43 of the first period, Venditti scored the game’s first goal, with Annie Guimond getting the assist.

The visitors didn’t let up  or try to sit on their lead and at 5:52, Ekedahl finished unassisted for a 2-0 advantage.

Portland/Deering tried to answer, but Lerch was denied on a rush, Lerch was robbed on a shot in front and freshman Emma Merrill, who made big plays all over the ice all evening, missed just wide.

After Portland/Deering goalie Adrianna Bodge kept her team in it by saving a shot from Venditti, Portland/Deering finally awakened its offense and turned momentum.

With 2:11 left in the first period, Lerch rushed in and fired a shot that eluded Joy to cut the deficit to 2-1.

“I had a great pass from the corner and I wound up rushing down,” Lerch said. “The net opened up. That gave us life. Getting that one goal boosted the whole team.” 

“To get a positive going into the start of the second (period), the excitement on the bench went up,” said Clifford. 

In the final minute, Demers twice tried to even the score, but Joy denied her each time, sending the contest to the first intermission with Cape Elizabeth/Waynflete/SP still on top, 2-1.

Portland/Deering managed to draw even in the second period.

Joy held the fort for awhile, turning aside a shot from Inez Braceras and after Cape Elizabeth/Waynflete/SP went on the power play, denying a short-handed shot from Rosmus before Braceras shot wide.

Then, with 10:46 left in the second, out of a scrum in front, Rosmus, on the doorstep, buried the puck to make it 2-2.

“We were outshooting them and their goalie stopped our shots, so getting a dirty, grimy goal pushed us,” Lerch said. “We knew she wasn’t unbeatable.”

“We knew our goals against Abby would be dirty, grimy goals,” Clifford said. “We couldn’t snipe. She’s too good.” 

After Joy denied Demers twice and Lerch another time in bids to put the hosts on top, Cape Elizabeth/Waynflete/SP nearly retook the lead, but Venditti was robbed by Bodge.

At the other end, Lerch, while falling to the ice, had a promising shot saved by Joy and Demers couldn’t bury the rebound.

With 5:14 remaining, the hosts nearly went on top, but Joy made a sensational pad save off a shot from Margaret Smith.

Twenty-four seconds later, Cape Elizabeth/Waynflete/SP went on the power play, but Bodge denied Venditti and frustrated senior Erika Miller with a terrific stop in front.

After another Portland/Deering penalty, Demers couldn’t finish a short-handed opportunity and at the other end, Venditti was wide with a promising look, sending the game to the third period deadlocked, 2-2.

“Our penalty kill all year has been really strong,” Clifford said. “That’s a credit to the five forwards I use pretty regularly to kill penalties.” 

Portland/Deering then went on top just 24 seconds into the third period.

Lerch had an initial shot saved by Joy, but the rebound came free and Lerch stayed with the play and finally managed to get the puck into the net for a 3-2 lead.

“We talked about fighting and not giving up,” Lerch said. “We’ve picked it up in the third period all season. It was just a battle in front and the puck popped out and I got it in.”

That would be the final score, but not without a lot of anxious moments.

With 11:28 left, Cape Elizabeth/Waynflete/SP went on the power play and got one good look, but a bid from freshman Nicoletta Coupe was deflected just wide.

With 7:30 to go, on a rush, Coupe tried again, but Bodge made the save before being knocked over.

After Demers couldn’t finish a couple of opportunities to end it, Merrill blocked a shot from Coupe with 2:51 on the clock.

With 1:31 left, Cape Elizabeth/Waynflete/SP coach Bob Mills called timeout and pulled Joy for an extra skater.

Seven seconds later, Ekedahl got a look, but her shot was saved by Bodge.

With 1:17 remaining, Coupe was denied on the doorstep.

Fifteen seconds later, Lerch nearly iced it when her long shot toward the empty net was just off target.

With 13.2 seconds to go, a pass from Cape Elizabeth/Waynflete/SP senior Laura Baginski crossed through the goal mouth untouched and after Portland/Deering iced the puck, Cape Elizabeth/Waynflete/SP got one final chance on a faceoff in the offensive zone with 6.7 seconds on the clock.

After Mills called timeout, Cape Elizabeth/Waynflete/SP managed to put the puck on a net, but a scrum in front didn’t result in the tying goal and the final horn sounded, giving Portland/Deering the 3-2 victory.

“We tried to get the puck on net and get an extra body advantage on net,” Mills said. “It would have been nice to have a few more seconds.”

“All five kids did exactly what they’re supposed to do, but sometimes shots still happen,” Clifford said. “We held on.”

The Portland/Deering celebration then began.

“It’s indescribable,” Lerch said. “It’s awesome to do something that’s never been done before. I’m so proud of the team and all the work we’ve put in. Everyone kept their heads up and didn’t give up. We really wanted it. It’s so stressful when it’s down to the last few seconds in a one-goal game. We knew we had to keep the puck out.”

“The vibe tonight was so different,” Merrill said. “Wow. The energy on the bench picked us up. It took everybody. We had to work all 45 minutes. We were all smiles at the end.  We’ve had our ups and downs, but mostly ups. The chemistry on this team is so much different than last year.”

“Since November 6th, they’ve bought in 100 percent to working hard and learning to do the things to get them to this point,” Clifford added.

Cape Elizabeth/Waynflete/SP, which had arguably its finest season to date, came oh-so-close and has a very bright future.

“It’s a tough way to end, but it was a fantastic game,” Mills said. “That’s how you want to see a playoff game. I told the girls not to hang their heads, it was probably our best game of the season. We talked to the girls about staying patient and not letting our emotions get the best of us. It could have gone either way. We possessed the puck well, we didn’t turn it over much.

“We had an influx of talented ninth graders. We’ll be sad to see our seniors graduate, in particular, Abby, but we have a good nucleus coming back and we should be strong. Hopefully we’re back here this time a year from now.”

Off to Lewiston

Cheverus/Kennebunk (which eliminated fourth-ranked Scarborough, 4-0, Saturday in its semifinal) has been close to unbeatable this winter, but the one time it stumbled, Portland/Deering did the honors, as it took the “City Cup” New Year’s Day, 4-3, in overtime. Cheverus/Kennebunk took the other meeting this winter, 6-0.

The teams met in 2012 West Region quarterfinals and Portland prevailed, 6-2.

The Battle of Portland will take place in Lewiston, but it should be a good one, as the winner will advance to play either Greely/Gray-New Gloucester or Lewiston in the state final next Saturday in Lewiston.

“It will be interesting,” Merrill said. “We have to do what we did this game, but we have to come out strong in the first period. I’m excited.”

“It’s definitely a big challenge for us,” Lerch said. “We have to go out and work hard.”

“They’re 18-1 for a reason and they’re extremely talented,” Clifford added. “They can score, they’re well coached, so we have our work cut out for us. It’s a rivalry and I don’t think getting the girls up to play will be an issue. We have to stay within ourselves. It’s great to have a few more days together.”

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

Portland/Deering goalie Adrianna Bodge saves a shot from Cape Elizabeth/Waynflete/South Portland’s Sophia Venditti. Venditti did score the game’s first goal.

Portland/Deering freshman Emma Merrill fires a shot.

Cape Elizabeth junior Abby Ekedahl plays the puck as Portland/Deering’s Lucy Howe defends.

Cape Elizabeth freshman Nicoletta Coupe fires a shot on Portland/Deering goalie Adrianna Bodge.

Portland/Deering’s Emily Demers skates in for a shot.

Cape Elizabeth/Waynflete/South Portland senior goalie Abby Joy stops the puck in front of a pair of Portland/Deering forwards.

Cape Elizabeth/Waynflete/South Portland freshman Koto Yamada chases after a puck in traffic.

Portland/Deering freshman Caroline Lerch scores her team’s first goal.

Portland/Deering celebrates Lerch’s goal.