ORONO — No player in the state scored more goals this winter. No player in the state, not until this point, scored a bigger goal, either.
Justin Wentworth scored his 44th goal of the season when Waterville Senior High School needed it most on Tuesday night, finally breaking through while falling to his knees 3:22 into overtime to lift the top-seeded Purple Panthers to a wild 6-5 win over No. 2 Old Town/Orono in the Class B North regional championship game at Alfond Arena.
“I really just remember it popping out, kind of out of the corner, and it was sitting in front,” Wentworth said. “I just took a whack at it and it went through.”
After having to battle back three times from deficits in the third period alone, Waterville (19-1-0) claimed its second consecutive regional title. The Purple Panthers will face the winner of Wednesday’s B South final between York and Greely in Saturday afternoon’s state championship game at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee.
“I think we wore them down. Our guys just kept battling,” Waterville coach Dennis Martin said. “That’s what they do. They don’t quit. With the leadership we have with these guys, there’s no quit in them.”
Waterville was able to force overtime when Andrew Roderigue scored with just over five minutes remaining in regulation, capping a third period that saw the teams combine for five goals. Each time the Panthers were able to finally tie the game — with Cooper Hart’s seventh goal of the season at 1:38 or with Chase Wheeler’s sixth of the year — Old Town/Orono (15-3-2) answered on its very next shift.
Jacob Gallon, who had a hand in every Black Bear goal, put his team in front for the final time at 5-4 with 9:02 left.
That’s when Roderigue and his defensive partner Matt Jolicoeur, along with the top line of Wentworth, Jackson Aldrich (one goal, three assists) and Michael Bolduc began to take over once and for all. Roderigue snuck into the top of the left circle and fired along the ice inside the far post a 9:59, and the game was destined for overtime.
Perhaps the best example of the influence of Waterville’s top unit came in overtime, when the Panthers had the Black Bears scurrying around in their own zone for nearly a full minute of game time before Wentworth finally cracked Brenden Gasaway (36 saves).
“I told the first line just to relax, because we play much better when we’re relaxed,” said Roderigue, who admitted the pressure had started to crack the Panthers as every punch of theirs was answered by a counterpunch in the third period. “I even told them right before the goal to tie it up, ‘Relax and we will score on this shift.’ It’s all in the head.”
All three of the Black Bears’ losses this season came at the hands of Waterville. In the regular season finale, a power play goal in the final minute lifted Waterville to an 8-7 win. But on the relatively warm, slow ice of Alfond Arena, Old Town/Orono head coach Denis Collins hoped his team might have an advantage and the Panthers would slow as minutes mounted late in the game.
“We played the best we possibly could, but (Waterville’s) guys are fast, they’re skilled and they took it to us in so many ways,” Collins said. “They never quit. I was expecting they would tire out. I was hoping that we’d have that edge on them because we practice (at Alfond), but those kids never gave up.”
That’s the heart of this team, the mentality of this team,” Wentworth said. “When we want something, we’ll go get it as a team.”
Wentworth didn’t have the easiest night. He was checked continuously, both through the neutral zone and in his familiar camping spot atop the crease, and open looks at goal were few and far between.
“Justin battled all game,” Martin said. “Finally, we broke the ice at the end. What a game.”
In the second period, when Old Town/Orono built a 3-1 lead, it was apparent that the Panthers would have to find a way get to the front of the net. Through two periods, Waterville held advantages in shots on goal (39-17), total shots attempted (52-17) and faceoffs won (23-10). But Gasaway stopped point-blank rebound chances from Wentworth and Cody Pellerin, a partial breakaway by Aldrich and Bolduc on a great play at the right post.
In front of him, Gasaway’s teammates blocked 10 shots.
In the end, though, all Wentworth needed was a chance in overtime. And he delivered the Panthers right into the state title game Saturday with a chance to repeat as Class B champions.
“It’s been our goal all season,” Wentworth said. “We’ve really wanted it and it’s got to happen. We’ve just got to work hard in practice the next few days, go hard, and hopefully bring (the title) home to us.”
Travis Barrett — 621-5621