PORTLAND—With the game and South Portland’s entire hockey season hanging in the balance, junior defenseman Zach Horton simply took over the ice and refused to let his team’s terrific year go sour early.
After spending much of the first two periods flattening one puck carrier after another at the blue line, Horton devoted the final six minutes of the game to displaying why he’s far more than just the Red Riots’ mercurial enforcer.
Trailing 2-1 late in the third period, Horton’s No. 23 sweater became synonymous with blue jerseys on the ground and South Portland in control of the puck, touching off an inspiring recovery that crested when freshmen Nick Whitten buried a wrister with just 1:14 remaining to lift the fourth-ranked Red Riots to a 3-2 victory over the fifth-ranked Portland Bulldogs in the Western Class A quarterfinals Saturday afternoon at the Portland Ice Arena.
With the win, South Portland (15-4) advances to the regional semifinals round Saturday night in Lewiston at the Colisee (8 p.m.). The Red Riots will meet top-ranked Biddeford (16-2-1, after Tuesday’s 5-2 quarterfinal round victory over Scarborough).
Down a goal late with Portland (9-10) senior captain Scott Briggs in the penalty box, Horton chased down a deflected clearing attempt between the blue lines and dumped it back into the offensive zone. The puck skipped down the left side of the boards, behind the net and eventually onto the stick of junior forward Robert Hannigan in the far left, crowd-side corner. Hannigan sent the puck into the crease and junior Josh Cobb stuffed it past Portland freshmen goalie Jon Gatti (26 saves) to tie the score 2-2 with 4:13 left in the game.
“It wasn’t looking good there for a while,” said Horton. “We stuck together and managed to hang in there. If we play strong defense the offense will come, and it did. We try and put a lot of pressure on teams up top. If we can knock the puck loose or get turnovers in that area it can lead to chances for us. It wasn’t pretty, but we’ll take it.”
Back at even strength three minutes later with the Bulldogs settled in the offensive zone and working for a clean look, Horton stole the puck along the boards, carried it down ice just over the blue line and ripped a slapper that deflected wide to the same left corner but this time kicked back along the boards toward the high post.
Portland briefly gained control of the puck along the boards and had the chance to clear the zone again, but Red Riots junior forward D.J. Conley and senior Aiden Boyce converged at the last second and managed to just barely keep the puck from trickling out. Pushing, kicking and hacking away with a pair of Portland skaters doing much the same, Conley and Boyce prevailed when the puck bounced loose toward center ice and found Whitten alone just above the circle on the left side.
Whitten turned to find every other player on the ice battling for position in the crease, but his plan to send the puck into the crowd quickly changed when a good-sized window of net opened on Gatti’s stick side and he lifted a crisp wrister the one place it needed to be and delivered the game-winner.
“The turning point was when we tied the score,” said Whitten. “We just said it’s now or never. I was able to get the last goal on a breakdown. They had the chance to clear the zone but we battled and kept it in. The puck came loose and I saw an opening.”
Whitten scored the first goal of the game in the opening moments of the first period and his second sent South Portland back to the semifinal round for the second-straight season under coach Joe Robinson with a dramatic 3-2 win over a scrappy, tough Portland team that has only the inevitable disappointment of dropping a hard-fought playoff game to hang their heads about.
“I knew it was going to be this type of game,” said Robinson. “We have very similar types of teams. Hardworking. Not a lot of numbers. (Portland coach) Andy (Gildart) does a great job coaching that team. I just had a feeling it was going to come right down to the end.
“Zach (Horton) took the game over late. He plays the body well. How many times did he knock guys down coming over the blue line? We talked before the game and I told him for us to win he needed to play big.”
Whitten’s first goal came from Cobb on a centering pass in the crease three minutes into the game for a 1-0 South Portland lead after the first period.
The Red Riots were whistled for eight penalties in the game, four in the second period when Portland tied things up on the two-man advantage on junior Eddie Apon’s first goal with just 10.9 seconds remaining to make it 1-1.
Apon’s second period goal released South Portland senior captain Tommy Ellis from the penalty box but left the Bulldogs on the power play for the first 1:38 of the third with Horton still behind glass for slashing. Apon needed only 12 seconds to put the Bulldogs on top 2-1, winning the draw to start the third period and skating in to beat South Portland sophomore goalie Dominic Desjardins (31 saves) with his own bang-bang rebound in the crease.
The Red Riots survived two more penalties in the third period to stage the dramatic rally behind Horton’s hard-hitting ways and advance on Whitten’s last-minute goal.
South Portland played without the services of freshmen defenseman Neil Maietta. Still suffering from the lingering effects of a concussion, Maietta put together a 22-point season and is expected back for the next round.
The Red Riots will be challenged against a Biddeford team they’ve never faced in the postseason. In the second game of the season (Dec. 10), the Tigers handled South Portland, 7-1.
If the Red Riots can keep their fantasy season alive, they would play Falmouth or Thornton Academy in the Western A Final Tuesday, March 2, in Lewiston. The Class A Final is Saturday, March 6, in Lewiston.
South Portland sophomore Brendan Horton keeps a close eye on Portland’s Bronson Guimond during Saturday’s game. The Red Riots scored twice in the final four-plus minutes to advance.
South Portland freshman Nick Whitten skates through two Portland defenders. Whitten scored twice Saturday, including the game-winner with just over a minute to go as the Red Riots beat the Bulldogs, 3-2.
Portland senior Jason Knight and South Portland junior Zach Horton do battle near center-ice.
South Portland junior Josh Cobb tries to squeak past Portland senior Jason Knight along the boards. The Red Riots advanced to a first-ever semifinal by virtue of their victory.
South Portland’s Robert Hannigan and Portland’s Bronson Guimond prepare for a collision during the third period of their teams’ playoff game Saturday.