HALLOWELL — The message came late Friday night to the proprietors of the Camden National Bank of Maine Ice Vault — the Gardiner Tigers were going to need some ice time for Monday practice.

So at 4:50 a.m. Monday, coach Sam Moore walked through the rink’s entrance with a cup of coffee, which was soon accompanied by a grin. Players started trickling in a few moments later. Perhaps some of the more bleary-eyed among them still thought they were dreaming. But there were no looks of astonishment or discomfort, even 90 minutes before sunrise, that they were about to prepare for the Class B South regional final.

Outside observers might have looked at the Tigers’ roster and thought this was not possible.

After all, Gardiner returned just two seniors, brought in a new coach and came off a tough 2014-15 season in which they just barely missed the playoffs. Furthermore, the team opened the season with consecutive shutout losses.

But the Tigers quickly subscribed to Moore’s no-nonsense philosophy and went 13-2-1 after that 0-2 start. They earned the No. 2 seed in the B South tournament, beat defending regional champion Gorham in the quarterfinals, 4-0, then survived a wild third period that had them three men down at one point to defeat sixth-seeded Cape Elizabeth, 5-4.

Next up: Top-seeded Yarmouth (16-4-0) in the regional final at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston.

“I think a lot of people didn’t expect us to be where we are,” Moore said.

Moore was not among the doubters. A center on Gardiner’s 1981 and 1983 state championship teams, when he played for the legendary Norm Gagne, he had watched many of the players grow up and had a hand in their development as hockey players. He knew that not only did they have the talent, but also many of the intangible qualities needed to win this time of year.

“I coached a lot of these kids at younger ages,” he said, “so when I applied for the job I knew what they were capable of. I just tried to bring them together as one unit and instill that it doesn’t matter who does what, we all receive the benefits, and they’ve bought into it.”

What they bought into was a business-like approach, on and off the ice, according to senior forward Logan Peacock.

“He definitely made it very clear to us what we had to do this year,” Peacock said. “He kept it very simple. He’s an old school kind of guy. He said we’re going to do it with a lot of conditioning, a lot of simple drills. We’re going to play our game and not worry about anyone else.”

“Basically, we go out with one game plan — take away time and space and force the other team. It seems to be working for us,” Moore said. “It helps when you have (goalie) Michael (Poirier) back there to cover mistakes, but that’s part of the game.”

The biggest challenge for Moore early on was getting the players to play with confidence. After bringing everyone back from last year, including 2015 Kennebec Journal Player of the Year Poirier in net, the Tigers expected to be better, but Moore thought they were selling themselves short.

“I don’t think anyone realized how good we could potentially be,” junior forward Tristan Hebert said. “We didn’t score a single goal in the first two games. It wasn’t really until after we got that first win that people started to realize what we were really capable of.”

After losing to Yarmouth, 2-0, and Gorham, 3-0, to start the season, they reeled off eight straight wins and a 10-0-1 record over their next 11. It started with a 4-2 victory over South Portland/Freeport/Waynflete. The seventh win in that streak, a 4-2 win over perennial power York, gave the Tigers the confidence that they could not only play with but beat the best teams in the region.

They lost a rematch at York two weeks later, 3-2, then, after a 3-2 win over Brunswick, fell behind Kennebunk 4-0 only to rally with five unanswered goals, capped by Hebert’s game-winner in overtime.

“They showed a lot of heart and grit in that game, and that’s when I knew that they were starting to believe in themselves and what they’re capable of,” Moore said.

Gardiner came out flat in a season-ending 3-1 loss to Cape Elizabeth. Slow starts seem to be the Tigers’ only weakness. But they were determined to start the postseason on the right skate and get their first playoff victory in seven years when they met Gorham in the quarterfinals. They took the lead on a first period goal by Tristan Hebert’s freshman brother, Tanner, then dominated the second period to pull away from the Rams.

“I felt like after winning that one it kind of showed us we can actually do this if we work hard enough, which we’ve shown,” junior forward Jake Folsom said. “We can make it pretty far.”

Folsom helped lead them there with an unassisted goal in the first period of the semifinal against Cape Elizabeth. He and Tristan Hebert picked up two goals and two assists each as the Tigers jumped out to a 4-1 lead before a rash of penalties helped the Capers claw their way back into the game in the third period.

“Getting that early goal against Cape really kick-started our whole team,” Tristan Hebert said. “We came out harder in the second and they pulled their starting goalie, Grant Rusk, and we kept rolling.”

Cape Elizabeth almost pulled the Tigers’ emergency brake with a 17-shot third period that featured multiple Gardiner penalties and a 6-on-3 Cape power play in the late stages. But Poirier, whose poise in net is one of his calling cards, limited the damage and sent the Capers home.

“We’ve had a lot of games where we’ve been out-shot, but Michael’s kept us in a lot of games this year,” Peacock said.

Poirier, who has five shutouts this year, admitted the pressure on him this year is more noticeable, but the Tigers’ improved penalty kill and ability to score in bunches helps.

“I felt a little bit (of pressure), because I wanted the seniors to have a good season and go as far as they wanted to,” Poirier said.

Moore hasn’t had to juggle his lines much throughout the season. He swapped the first two lines in and out of the starting lineup during the regular season, but has started the line featuring Peacock and junior Ryan Kelley to get Folsom and Tristan Hebert matched up with the opposition’s second line.

“There aren’t a lot of second lines that can skate with that line,” Moore said.

“We look at it as we’ve got two first lines. We don’t really care who starts that much,” Tristan Hebert added. “It’s also nice having that matchup against that other team’s second line, knowing that we will have an opportunity to score some goals.”

The Tigers will need to score more goals than they did in their first game against Yarmouth if they want to upset the Clippers on Wednesday night. But Moore doesn’t want his team drawing anything from that game, or anyone’s expectations but their own.

“Just go with it, have fun with it and realize your potential,” Moore said. “You’re down to one game to get to the state championship. Anything can happen.”

Randy Whitehouse — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @RAWmaterial33

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