PORTLAND-All things being equal, the South Portland boys’ hockey team is more or less right where it should be – and likely even where it planned to be – after splitting its first two games to begin the season.
The Red Riots knew for some time they would lace them up against powerhouse Biddeford to start things off. And while they hoped to play far better when that day finally came, it still would have been a stretch to think a young team would break camp and be ready to stage a major upset right out of the gate.
South Portland didn’t. The Tigers won going away, 7-1.
But a look ahead saw the Portland Bulldogs were up next, the Red Riots fiercest rival in any sport, but a game at this point the hockey team pencils in for a ‘W’ reviewing the schedule before the season.
And there you have it, South Portland opened up a two-goal lead early, watched in horror as the Bulldogs closed to within one deep in the final period, and then celebrated with and for freshmen Neil Maietta when he caught fire for three straight points in a dizzying 27-second flurry for a 6-2 victory in a Western Class A contest played early Saturday morning at Portland Ice Arena.
Maietta hopped out of the penalty box after watching Portland senior Ben DiBiase score while he served two minutes for slashing and answered the Bulldogs’ only power-play goal on the night with his first varsity goal.
Hustling into the action, Maietta slowed at the blue line, drifted in toward the near post, then softened the puck from junior Robert Hannigan and netted a wrister for South Portland to reclaim a two-goal lead at 11:04 of third period.
But Maietta was just warming up, when 16 seconds later he returned the favor to a teammate, finding fellow freshmen Nick Whitten out front for a 5-2 lead at 11:16 of the final period.
If South Portland thought they could take a deep breathe now, it let out a mighty exhale when Maietta won the puck and slid a pass to sophomore James Gilboy at 11:31 for a goal and the 6-2 final.
“We went into the locker room after the second period and talked a lot about not letting them get back in the game,” Maietta said. “We were kind of frustrated and kind of down. I went to the penalty box and they scored a goal. Right when I came out we went down in the zone and scored. Now we’re up two.
“Getting set for the faceoff I told everyone we had to keep going. We had to score a couple of goals real quick. I didn’t think it would happen in 30 seconds.”
In his second season between the pipes for South Portland, sophomore goalie Dominic Desjardins turned away 36 Portland shots to earn the win.
Portland freshman goalie Jon Gatti saved 27 shots in his third impressive outing to begin the season. The Bulldogs fell to 0-3 on the young season with three games left before the Christmas break to even the ship.
South Portland jumped out to a 1-0 lead when junior Lynden Mazur found classmate Zach Horton for a score before two minutes had ticked off in the first period.
Things settled down for a stretch but Hannigan scored on the power-play to put the Red Riots on top 2-0 at 6:56 of the first.
For Portland, senior Scott Briggs, an all-league selection last season, found classmate Jason Knight for a wrister at 7:07 to get within one for a brief stretch before the Red Riots scored again to close out the first leading 3-1.
South Portland’s Brian Cleary poked home a loose puck in the crease on the rebound from a D.J. Conley shot for the two-goal lead.
“We came out and played great in the first period,” said senior captain Tommy Ellis. “We really did what we wanted to do. The forecheck was effective and we passed the puck and got good shots. In the second it just wasn’t there. We got frustrated and it turned sloppy. But we got three goals real quick in the third and it allowed us to come out on a positive note.”
As can be typical of any South Portland/Portland sporting event, the second period gave way to a little roughhousing as both teams went to the box in droves and neither team scored a goal.
The Red Riots (1-1) finished in good shape going 2-for-5 on the power-play, while the Bulldogs continued to struggle with only the one goal to show for nine chances. So far this season, Portland has converted just three times in 23 tries with an extra skater.
DiBiase had the Bulldogs only power-play goal, scoring unassisted at 8:28 of the third to pull within a goal, but Maietta answered with his run of three-straight points as South Portland pulled away for win, 6-2.
Now in his third season in the trenchcoat for South Portland, coach Joe Robinson has every intention of helping the program emerge from the long holding pattern of mediocrity that’s hovered around a city and school that came late to the game of hockey.
Robinson’s name belongs in every conversation regarding star players from South Portland’s past. After serving as Jason Tremblay’s top assistant at Cape Elizabeth he slid over a zip code to start the 2007 season to take over a program that once thought organized hockey was a decent-sized stretch of frozen water and a pair of Herman Survivors for goal posts.
But last year, the Red Riots posted an impressive 15-4-1 record, winning only the second playoff game in program history before Falmouth blanked them in the quarterfinals.
This year, despite a roster dotted with freshman and sophomores, Robinson has big plans for his team even after moving up a tier and facing a schedule that reflects this shift.
“We’re just not playing that well right now,” said Robinson. “We’ve only played two games but so far we have way too many penalties. We had 13 against Portland. When you add that up it comes out to over the half the game in the box. That’s a nice score, 6-2, but this team has way more to give me and I’m not getting it right now.”
It won’t be easy, next in line for the Red Riots was a trip to top contender Thornton Academy Wednesday. South Portland will break for the holidays after one more road game at Yarmouth Saturday at 8:30 p.m.