WATERVILLE — If the days truly are darkest just before dawn, then the sun appears set to rise for the Messalonskee boys hockey team this winter.

The Eagles rallied back from a pair of first-period, four-goal deficits, riding a hat trick from senior Dylan Cunningham to erase defending regional finalist Kennebec with a 9-7 win in the Class B North opener for both teams Saturday night at Alfond Rink. Messalonskee, which won just three games combined over the previous two seasons, rolled out essentially the same lineup as last year’s and immediately sent a message to the rest of the league that this Eagles’ squad might be closer to the 2014 and 2015 state championship teams than the punchless ones of the three most recent seasons.

“It’s a huge win for the kids. It builds their confidence,” Messalonskee coach Kevin Castner said. “The kids put in the work, and I can’t ask for anything more from them. We kept telling them that it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon, and they stayed focused (after falling behind early). We have a great core of leadership this year.”

Statistically, it was one wild contest.

Kennebec (0-1-0) got hat tricks from both Nate Newgard and Brandon Mason on a night in which the RiverHawks’ top line accounted for all of its scoring. Cody Ivey added the other Kennebec goal.

Cunningham, making his return to high school hockey after playing exclusively in the junior ranks for the last two years, scored three goals. Myles Hammond and Evan Hurtubise each added a pair of goals for Messalonskee (1-0-0), and Jacob Thomas and Bryce Crowell also found the back of the net.

But the most important statistic of the entire night might have belonged to Messalonskee goaltender Mitchell Grant. After allowing five goals on the first eight shots he faced, the sophomore rebounded nicely to stop all but two of the next 23 thrown his way and finish with 24 saves on the night.

None were bigger than the two he made with 30 seconds remaining and Kennebec’s own net empty in favor of an extra attacker. Grant first stopped Ivey’s drive from the high slot before recovering to smother Newgard’s bang-bang rebound attempt on the doorstep.

“I came out and I was all over the place running around,” Grant said of his rough start. “I settled down a little bit, figured out what I needed to do better and got it done. It was tough. I didn’t play my best, but as the game went on I relaxed a little more.

“This is a huge win.”

Kennebec led 4-0 after just 5:23 and answered Cunningham’s first of the night at 11:11 of the first with Mason’s second late in the period to make it 5-1.

When Kennebec defenseman Zach Menoudarakos handed the puck to Cunningham at his own blue line, it sent Cunningham in on a breakaway for a life-giving goal with 11.5 seconds left until intermission.

The goal was the first of six consecutive scored by Messalonskee, including four in a span of 4:34 late in the second period to build a 7-5 lead for the Eagles.

“Right before those last few seconds (of the first period), we were kind of hanging our heads,” Cunningham said. “We just needed to net one real fast and come right back at them. We had the momentum going into the second period, and it showed because we came back and tied it 5-5.

“It was amazing.”

Kennebec never recovered, even though the RiverHawks cut the deficit to a single goal before the second intermission.

“We showed some lack of poise and focus,” Kennebec coach Jon Hart said. “A lot of breakdowns. I told the kids, though, that everything that went wrong tonight was correctable.”

Kennebec mustered just one shot — a harmless wrister from Menoudarakos from the point — on a full two-minute, 5-on-3 power play with under five minutes remaining while trailing by two goals. With goalie Bryce Gunzinger (22 saves) pulled for the final two minutes of the third period, Kennebec only got off two shots.

“It’s inexcusable. We didn’t even set up our stuff,” Hart said. “Not a lot of trust in each other at times, too much trust in risky plays. Of their first six goals, I thought we literally handed them four of them. We struggled to focus and do what we’ve been coaching them to do.”

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