LEWISTON — Stymied and frustrated for the better part of the afternoon, Messalonskee High School’s star front line stepped up when it mattered most Saturday at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee.

The Eagles (20-1) trailed by one goal heading into the third period against a Gorham (14-6-2) team hungry for another upset. It was at that point when senior Jake Dexter, junior Jared Cunningham and sophomore Brandon Nale exploded for six goals to deliver the Eagles to a 7-2 victory and their second consecutive Class B boys hockey championship.

“It means a lot. Coming off a 21-0 run (last season) and coming out here and repeating is a great feeling,” Cunningham said. “I was getting a little frustrated but you have to work through some problems and just keep going, keep grinding.

“… It’s an amazing feeling and a great group of guys. We came together as a family, and we just wanted to come out here and we wanted to prove ourselves. Everyone said we were losing a lot and we wouldn’t be as good, but we just came out here and proved everyone wrong.”

Cunningham finished with a hat trick for the Eagles, while Dexter and Nale each had two goals and two assists. Senior goaltender Elija Tuell picked up 21 saves in the win.

Messalonskee was challenged in the latter part of this season, but it was apparent from the first few minutes that Gorham — who knocked off each of the top three seeds in Western B en route to the finals — would not waste its opportunity.

It took just 2 minutes, 27 seconds for each team to venture into unfamiliar territory, as the Rams — who had made a habit of come-from-behind victories — struck first with a power-play goal from Carl Bear.

“There was definitely a lot of angst going on, I can definitely say that,” Messalonskee coach Joe Hague said. “We were definitely concerned. I’ve got to give Gorham credit. They came out fighting.”

The Eagles were not without fight in the first two periods, yet that moxie was rarely rewarded. Cunningham had a chance 5:18 into the first that was turned away by a diving Noah Bird (29 saves), while Nale and Dexter consistently put themselves in promising scoring positions only to come up short when the time came to bury the puck.

Sophomore Dylan Brown got a couple of good looks on net in the second period, yet each time Bird either made the save or the Rams’ defense broke up the play.

It also did not hurt that Gorham caught a few breaks either. After a bouncing puck hopped over a Messalonskee player’s stick along the blue line with just under 9 minutes to play in the second, Gorham’s Travis Mansir was in perfect position to pick it up.

Mansir skated in for a breakaway and finished blocker side over Tuell’s right shoulder to give the Rams a 2-0 lead with 8:38 to go in the second.

“We got down on ourselves and got a little frustrated,” Nale said.

A lot of Messalonskee’s struggles early on were less about what the Eagles were not doing and more about what Gorham was doing. The Rams relied on heavy defensive shifts from senior captains Andrew Schmidt and Matt Hooker, as one of the two routinely skated up further into the neutral zone to stop the long transition passes the Eagles have often utilized.

Recognizing that and adjusting, according to Cunningham, was a big part of what allowed Messalonskee to get back into the game.

Dexter — one of the team’s two seniors along with Tuell — gave his team the lift it needed when he scored just outside the crease off a cross-ice pass from Nale with 3:41 to go in the period.

“Getting that first goal was really big because it kind of opens things up,” Dexter said. “It makes your team feel good.”

As the third period began there was a sense that the game was turning on both sidelines. The strategy which had kept the Rams in the game early on was beginning to turn on them, while the Eagles’ top line was finding its footing.

“We were trying to get (Hooker) and (Schmidt) on the ice as much as we could when their high-powered first line was on the ice,” Gorham coach John Portwine said. “That’s why at the end of the game you saw those guys taking a knee.

“They gave everything they had. The first few periods we played, we won. We won two periods, we lost the third. It didn’t turn out the way we wanted but I can’t say enough about the effort that we gave and the effort that these kids have given during this playoff run.”

Dexter began the onslaught 2:20 into the period when he beat Bird five-hole off a rebound after an initial shot from Nale. Less than 3 minutes later the two reversed the order when Nale finished off a nice give-and-go with Dexter to give Messalonskee its first lead of the contest.

“As soon as we got things rolling then they started to click,” Cunningham said. “They were getting tired and we were taking advantage of their weaknesses.”

Cunningham dealt the back-breaking goal with 4:35 to play, as he skated through the neutral zone and shielded a Gorham defender on his right. He brought the puck out to the left and swooped back to the right as he approached Bird, finishing on the right side of the net.

From there Nale added another sandwiched around two more Cunningham goals to resoundingly seal the Eagles’ second straight championship.

Evan Crawley — 621-5640

[email protected]

Twitter: @Evan_Crawley


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