WATERVILLE — After a sluggish start brimming with nervy, disconnected play, it turned into a ‘beauty’ of a Saturday night for the Presque Isle hockey team.

Junior Jake Stevens netted his first career playoff hat trick and netminder Andre Daigle was sharp early when the Wildcats needed him most, as No. 3 Presque Isle overcame an early deficit to post a 6-3 win over No. 2 Kennebec in the Class B North semifinals at Colby College’s Alfond Rink. The Wildcats advanced to Tuesday night’s regional finals for the first time since 2014, where they will meet No. 1 Old Town/Orono, a 7-3 winner over No. 4 Hampden Academy in the late game.

“We have a good team. It’s just push hard, high tempo, good forecheck. That’s what it’s all about,” Stevens said. “This was great. It was all good goals for us — usually we get scrap goals, but tonight it was all beauty.”

“After our quarterfinal win (over Camden Hills on Tuesday), I said to Jake, ‘This is going to be your night,'” Presque Isle coach Carl Flynn said. “He started out slow and started to get frustrated, but once we started to get a little momentum, he started to go.”

Freshman Gage Letourneau added a pair of goals for Presque Isle (14-6-0), which went 4 for 6 on the power play in the win. Connor DeMerchant added three assists for the Wildcats.

For Kennebec (11-8-0), Tom Tibbetts scored a pair of goals and Cooper Hart added another tally for the first-year Waterville/Winslow co-op. Bryce Gunzinger finished with 25 saves.

“You’ve got to give them credit,” RiverHawks coach Jon Hart said of Presque Isle. “The biggest thing is their consistency. I don’t necessarily see one line and think, ‘Look out,’ but they just keep coming at you.”

TURNING POINT: After a road-weary first period, Presque Isle found its legs immediately in the second period with a goal just 41 seconds in off the stick of Letourneau to tie the game at 1-1.

After a first period that saw the Wildcats outshot by a 19-6 count, it breathed life into their bench.

“I challenged them between the first and second period — Letourneau, DeMerchant and (Colby) Carlisle,” Flynn said. “I told them I’d never seen kids skate faster than them, and Letourneau came out and scored right off in the second period.”

Hart knew then that his RiverHawks had squandered a glorious opportunity in the first period by not staking themselves out to a bigger lead through 15 minutes.

“That (first) period was as good a period as we can play,” Hart said. “I went in and told my team their coach is telling them right now, ‘Wow, it’s only 1-0.’ That’s really good momentum for them, and the second period is a really tough period for us — it always has been.”

Presque Isle scored twice more in the second and three times in the third en route to the victory.

PLAYER OF THE GAME: Daigle played a pivotal role for Presque Isle, especially early in the game when Kennebec had all the jump.

Daigle made 18 of his 29 saves in the first period — keeping the Wildcats from being run out of the building very early on.

“He’s had an up and down season for us,” Flynn said. “He started out really rough and we really had doubts. We did some soul-searching, but we stuck with him. He played phenomenal in the quarterfinal (win over Camden Hills) and he played extraordinary tonight.”

“They had a lot of shots and I had to make a lot of big saves. Just kept on thinking we’re going to win, always,” Daigle said. “This year’s been a big difference for me. We definitely kept on going (after the first). We sped up toward the end and that’s what pushed us to the win.”

Hart made a point to speak with Daigle as the teams moved through the handshake line following the game.

“I told their goalie after the game, ‘You should be proud.’ Some of those shots were tough, rebounds,” Hart said. “I knew he was going to be solid, but he came up huge in that first period. It could easily have been 3-0 in the first period.”

PENALTY BOX: Six of the game’s nine goals came via special teams, with Presque Isle scoring four power play goals and Kennebec accounting for one with the man advantage and one while shorthanded.

Penalties were a killer for Kennebec in the second period, with the RiverHawks taking three inside the first 5:04 of the frame to help Presque Isle find its legs. Kennebec skated down two men on three different occasions, including two Wildcat 5-on-3 situations lasting more than 1:40.

“We shot ourselves in the foot a lot this year,” Hart said. “We got worn down emotionally. Some calls we didn’t like. We kept fighting, but you could see the legs start to get really heavy. Some of those kids aren’t playing anymore after high school, and when it started to sink in you could see it.”

Presque Isle took its first lead, 2-1, at 6:07 of the second period with a Carlisle goal while skating with a two-man advantage. In the third period, a one-goal game turned into a 5-2 Wildcat lead when Stevens and Letourneau scored 49 seconds apart.

Stevens’ goal came 5-on-3, while Letourneau’s follow-up was on the remaining 5-on-4 power play.

“That’s been the game plan all year is to skate three lines in a league where everyone else skates one and a half or two lines,” Flynn said. “Just wear people down and try to get to the third period. Penalties helped us… When the other team’s taking penalties, you can wear them down that much more.”

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

[email protected]

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC

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