Dominic Dexter is the leader of the bunch, the lone senior who can be counted on for his poise under pressure. Tyler Simpson, a junior, had his ice time increase significantly — and has made the most of his opportunity behind the blue line.
And then there are fellow Messalonskee defensemen Dylan Burton and Sam Bell, two freshmen who came into the season as question marks but will end it as sure things.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had four defensemen who we’d trust in any circumstance,” Messalonskee coach Mike Latendresse. “I’m confident in all four in any situation. This foursome have played exactly like we hoped they would.”
And they’ve provided exactly what the Eagles needed to make another run at the Class B state championship.
Messalonskee (16-2-0), the defending Eastern B champ, will host No. 4 Hampden (12-7-0) in a regional semifinal Saturday at 4:45 p.m. in Sukee Arena.
No. 3 John Bapst (13-5-1) and No. 6 Presque Isle (9-9-1) will play in the other semifinal at 7:15 p.m.
To reach the Eastern B final, the top-seeded Eagles will need yet another gritty performance from their four defensemen, who’ve skated in relative obscurity for much of the season.
Messalonskee came into this campaign with a pair of prolific playmakers — brothers Chase and Jared Cunningham — who promised to make it a dangerous team in the offensive zone.
They didn’t disappoint.
The Eagles have scored at least five goals in 13 of their 18 regular season games.
But it’s been the quiet yet steady play in the defensive zone that’s made just as much of an impact this winter.
Messalonskee has allowed an average of 2.5 goals a game.
“They’ve played great since Day 1,” Latendresse said. “We have some gamers back there. We expect a lot from our defensemen. For them to pick up the game together like they did, it’s been great. They’ve been playing some really good hockey.”
They’ve also had to protect a first-year starting goalie — Ben Weeks — after Nate DelGiudice graduated.
That only enhanced their responsibilities.
“It’s a little different not having Nate back there,” Dexter said. “We have to be tougher.”
Added Latendresse: “You have a different goalie back there and that adds a whole other element to the challenge. They’ve done a good job protecting (Weeks) back there.”
Of the four blue liners, only Dexter logged significant minutes last season. Simpson, who was often paired with standout Travis St. Pierre, played but was low on the depth chart.
Not so this year.
“I didn’t have to do too much last year,” he said. “Travis was so good that he did most of the work back there. I’ve had to step up my game.”
So, too, have Burton and Bell. The former has emerged as a threat at both ends of the ice. Burton is a key player on the Eagles’ top power-play unit.
He says he never expected to make this quick of an impact.
“I didn’t know I’d have this big a role on the team,” Burton said. “I thought I would just be another defenseman. But after the third game of the season or so I started to feel more comfortable.”
Latendresse said Burton reminds him of a young St. Pierre.
“His style of game is impressive,” Latendresse said. “He just has so much patience and poise with the puck. He’s very confident in any situation, and you like to see that in a young player. He might be panicking on the inside but you’d never know it. He has a lot of ability.”
Bell is one of the more physical defenseman of the unit. He acknowledged it took a little time to adjust to the speed of the varsity game, but grew comfortable and confident as the season progressed.
“I’m just always focusing on making the right plays,” he said. “Just keep the puck out of our zone and out of the net. I knew it was going to be tough but I feel pretty good out there.”
Added Dexter: “Sam is just real physical. We needed that. The freshmen have really stepped up for us back there. It’s nice having four of us back there. We all stay a little more fresh. I think it helps us out a lot.”
Bill Stewart — 621-5640