WATERVILLE — New league. New look. Same Tigers.

The end result of Wednesday’s season-opening 7-2 win for the Gardiner boys hockey team looks pretty good on paper. Four days after Messalonskee stunned the Waterville/Winslow co-op with an offensive explosion — against the reigning Class B North finalist RiverHawks, no less — Gardiner got its season going with a win that lived up to the preseason expectations.

Yes, the Tigers are a veteran bunch. Yes, the Tigers appear well-equipped to challenge any team in Class B North this season. And, yes, the Tigers are certainly deeper than most of the competition in the region with a heavy lineup up and down the roster, to boot.

Yet there remains the same old problem for Gardiner, one which was clear as one of those frosty January nights in which the Tigers hope to make serious hay in the Heal point standings.

Penalties.

Lack of discipline.

Too many power plays allowing the opposition to hang around.

The first thing second-year coach Tyler Wing said about his Tigers following the final horn: “Can’t play a whole game shorthanded.”

Give his team credit for one thing. They certainly tried to. Gardiner took a total of nine minor penalties in the win adding up to 18 minutes at less than full strength. They scored a pair of shorthanded goals, masking the whopping 40 percent of the game they spent with a player in the penalty box.

“It has been an issue for five years at least,” Wing said. “One of my biggest things is to play the puck before the body, and they are gradually starting to figure things out. But it’s taking a long time to even get them to think, ‘Oh, maybe I shouldn’t do this.’ … It’s something we’re working on a lot this year.”

“We’ve just got to play smarter and think about what we’re doing before we do it,” said Gardiner’s Cam Rizzo, who had a goal and two assists. “In the heat of the moment, everything’s hard. It’s different out there.”

Messalonskee went just 1 for 8 with the man advantage Wednesday night, a startling development after the ease with which the Eagles’ top line of Myles Hammond, Dylan Cunningham and Ben Hellen carved its way through Kennebec over the weekend. Messalonskee racked up 14 of its 19 shots through the first 30 minutes with the power play, but the play of Gardiner goalie Quinn Veregge was exactly what the Tigers needed. The senior netminder made a pair of point-blank stops on Hammond after Cunningham fed him at the bottom of the right circle on an Eagle power play, at a time when the Tigers were still nursing a two-goal lead.

Gardiner opened things up with two goals 15 seconds apart in the final minute of the period, the second of which came off the stick of Sean Michaud while shorthanded.

It won’t always play in Gardiner’s favor. Veregge and company will certainly see their share of potent offenses in Class B North — with teams like Old Town/Orono, Hampden Academy and Camden Hills jumping immediately to mind — and those power play units across the league will only improve as more ice time and practice allow them to fine-tune their chances.

“I’m scared,” Wing said. “If we continue on this path of 18-20 minutes of penalties a game, we’re going to end up not getting where we should be. I can only skate four guys on the ice for so long before everyone’s exhausted.”

Discipline, or a lack thereof, has been a bugaboo for Gardiner for several seasons now. When the Tigers were at their best Wednesday, not surprisingly, was in the third period. Having taken just one minor in the final frame, Gardiner scored a pair of goals to ice the contest while outshooting their hosts 12-4 across the 15 minutes.

There’s an edge the Tigers play with, and given the size and speed the squad is equipped with, it’s a valuable tool at their disposal. But there’s also a line that you cannot cross repeatedly while expecting sustained success, especially at the high school varsity level.

Running an opposing center over following a clean faceoff win. A cross-check up under the chin of the other team’s leading scorer. Crumpling an undersized defender into the boards while he heads back to retrieve a puck.

Gardiner did all of that Wednesday and more, and it’s a recipe that can’t continue to be followed, especially if the Tigers hope to be playing for a regional title in their new digs come March.

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