PORTLAND—Portland/Deering’s boys’ hockey team hasn’t been known for its strong starts, but Wednesday evening at Troubh Ice Arena, the Bulldogs scored a goal 39 seconds into their Class A state preliminary round playoff game and that early advantage proved to be the difference against the Lake Region/Fryeburg/Oxford Hills co-op squad.

Sixth-ranked Portland/Deering got the jump courtesy freshman Liam Fay-LeBlanc, who scored for a 1-0 lead which held up into the second period.

There, the Bulldogs went up by two in unorthodox fashion, as junior Nick Becker scored a short-handed goal.

The 11th-seeded Ice Cats rallied later in the second, on a short-handed tally of their own, off the stick of sophomore Wyatt Knightly, but with Portland/Deering goalie Ryan Becker holding them at bay, they could never catch up.

Ryan Becker was at his best in the third period, stopping a couple breakaway opportunities, and junior Nick McGonagle added an insurance goal as the Bulldogs went on to a 3-1 triumph.

Portland/Deering improved to 8-11, ended Lake Region’s season at 8-10-1 and in the process, advanced to meet No. 3 Scarborough (13-4-1) in the state quarterfinals, Saturday at 12 p.m., at the Colisee in Lewiston.

“Having the early lead helped immensely,” said Bulldogs’ coach Jeff Beaney. “We’re traditionally a very slow starting team, so it was big to get that first goal.”

New beginning

Portland/Deering experienced plenty of ups and downs in the regular season, enjoying wins over the likes of defending Class B North champion Old Town/Orono, Cheverus, Bangor, Edward Little and Cheverus, but the Bulldogs never won more than two games in a row and were blanked on five occasions.

The Ice Cats won eight games, but wound up 11th in the region.

The teams met nine days ago at Troubh Ice Arena and Portland/Deering eked out a 2-1 decision. Junior Dante Tocci scored the winner. McGonagle also scored for the Bulldogs, while the Ice Cats got a goal from junior Eddie Thurston.

The Bulldogs and Ice Cats had never before met in a playoff game prior to Wednesday.

Portland/Deering took it right to Lake Region to start the game and after Ice Cats’ junior goalie Dominic Zimmel stopped a shot from sophomore Carlos Braceras, then denied senior Miki Silva, Fay-LeBlanc was there to clean up and 39 seconds in, the Bulldogs had the lead for good, 1-0.

It wasn’t just any goal for Fay-LeBlanc, it was his the first of his varsity career and came on his first playoff shift.

“That goal was great,” Beaney said. “He’s been hurt up through the middle of January. He’s only played seven games, but he’s helped cement that line.”

The Ice Cats had a 7-5 shots advantage in the first period and tried to answer, only to see Ryan Becker deny Thurston, then Knightly with a pretty save

Neither team could break through for much of the second period as well, before exchanging short-handed goals.

After Zimmel robbed senior Whit Steele in front, then stopped Tocci and a rebound bid from Steele, Lake Region went on the power play, but at 10:08 of the second, Portland/Deering took advantage, as Nick Becker raced in, kept the puck and roofed a shot past Zimmel and into the net for a 2-0 lead.

“We had the puck deep in our offensive end and (junior) Peter Gribbin chipped the puck to me off the boards, I saw Dante in the middle for a 2-on-1 and I gave him a look, but I knew that would make the goalie think, so I just shot it high glove,” Nick Becker said. “That really boosted the team.”

“We played them two weeks again and we knew we could pressure them a little bit,” Beaney said. “We want to focus on your zone, but if they over-commit on the power play, you have to go because it’s devastating to the other team when you score (man-down).”

Portland/Deering then went on the power play, but instead of opening the game up, the Bulldogs saw their lead cut in half at 10:50, as senior Cam Lepage found an open Knightly behind the defense and Knightly shot the puck past Ryan Becker.

Late in the period, Lake Region had a chance to tie the game when it went on the power play, but Ryan Becker denied junior Boden Dock, then robbed Thurston in front to keep Portland/Deering on top heading for the third period.

Where the Bulldogs finished up their victory.

Portland/Deering got some breathing room with 10:37 to play, when McGonagle beat Zimmel with sophomore Colby Winship earning an assist.

The Bulldogs didn’t score again, but they didn’t need to, as Ryan Becker did the rest.

First, Becker denied a nice backhanded look from Thurston.

Becker then denied Dock with his pad, then did it again with his glove.

With 4:24 to play, Becker denied a breakaway chance from freshman Caleb Micklon, then after Lepage rang a shot off the post, Knightly got a chance on the breakaway with 2:35 remaining, but Becker stood tall and made that save as well.

“I just try to be patient and make them make the first move and once they shoot, I watch the puck into my body,” Becker said. “Our defense played really well and limited their opportunities.”

Portland/Deering ran out the clock from there and celebrated its 3-1 victory.

“The third period was probably our best period of the game,” Beaney said. “We played a full 15 minutes. We played smarter and kept the puck low and created a lot of shots.”

Following the win, as if they hadn’t entertained enough already, Nick Becker and Ryan Becker showed off their dance moves for the exuberant student section.

“One time, we were watching Sesame Street after school and it was ‘Elmo’s World’ and he was doing that dance and we learned how to do it and now, we do it after every win,” Ryan Becker said.

“We really wanted to (dance) tonight, especially our last game at Troubh this season,” Nick Becker said. “We just had to get it done. That was awesome.”

Portland/Deering finished with a 26-21 shots advantage and while it didn’t score on the power play, 20 saves from Ryan Becker was enough to get the job done.

“(Ryan) was unbelievable,” Nick Becker said. “We’re lucky to have him.”

“Ryan is playing like he did in our run last year,” Beaney said.

The Ice Cats also failed to score on the power play and got 23 saves from Zimmel.

“Taking as many penalties as we did didn’t help,” said Lake Region coach Dave Lepage. “(Portland/Deering’s) a good team and they moved the puck well in our end. We had a couple breakaways in the third period and a shot clanked the post, so the game was competitive.

“What I’m proud of the most is we made every team we played work hard to beat us. For two periods, we were with everybody, but with just two lines, we got worn down. I wish I had a third line.

“We lose five seniors, but most of the team is juniors, so their senior year next year will be a good one.”

Saturday showdown

At high noon Saturday, Portland/Deering will look to knock off a third-seeded Scarborough squad which beat the host Bulldogs, 8-2, way back on Jan. 2.

Scarborough has taken three of four prior playoff meetings with the most recent in last year’s quarterfinals (a 4-1 Portland/Deering victory).

The Bulldogs will embrace their underdog role and know that anything’s possible.

“We made a good run last year and who says we can’t do it again?” said Ryan Becker. “We have the guys to do it. We just have to get it done.”

“We’re more together now than we were the first time,” Nick Becker said. “Scarborough should expect some big things.”

“There’s so much pressure the first game, but Saturday, we’re playing with house money as the lower seed,’ Beaney added. “We look forward to it. I think we’re peaking at the right time. We started 1-5 and had to replace a lot of key people and we don’t have a lot of size, but we finally have some confidence again.”

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

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