WINSLOW — The Messalonskee hockey team made it a season-long goal to not only defend its Eastern B title but take the state crown as well.
The Eagles are three wins away from attaining that goal. The first test comes Saturday night, when top-seeded Messalonskee (18-0-0) meets No. 5 John Bapst (10-9-0) in an Eastern B semifinal game at 8 p.m. at Sukee Arena.
The game is a rematch of the Eastern B final last season, which Messalonskee won 7-2.
“This is going to be a tough game,” Messalonskee coach Mike Latendresse said. “They have some speed and some depth. They’ve been playing really well of late. It’s an interesting matchup.”
No. 3 Waterville (11-7-1) will face off against No. 2 Presque Isle (12-5-1) in the other semifinal at 5 p.m.
The winners will play for the Eastern B title Tuesday at the University of Maine.
Messalonskee and Presque Isle received byes to the semifinals. The Eagles played Camden in the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference championship last weekend, but most of the regulars saw limited action.
PI hasn’t played in 10 days.
“We’ve been able to rest some guys, which has been nice,” Latendresse said.
Waterville turned back Hampden while John Bapst edged Winslow in overtime in quarterfinal games Tuesday.
“Having that game helped,” Waterville coach Dennis Martin said. “Presque Isle hasn’t played in a little bit so maybe that will be a factor.”
Waterville and PI split the two regular season meetings. Waterville pulled out a 2-1 victory on Jan. 24 before PI answered with a 4-3 overtime win about a month later.
Physical forward Tyler Seeley leads Presque Isle. He scored a hat trick, including the overtime winner, against Waterville earlier this year.
“He’s tough,” Waterville senior captain forward Chris Lee said. “We’ll have to get in on his hands. He’s tough to move off the puck.”
Lee as 11 goals and 19 assists for 30 points, which is second to Nick Denis (21-12-33) on the team. Tommy Samson is third on the team in scoring with 21 points (9 goals, 12 assists).
“We owe them a game,” Samson said. “We’re itching to play this game.”
Waterville, which is back in the playoffs for the first time in three years, will start Kaleb Kane in net. The senior goalie has been steady for much of this season.
“We’ll need Kaleb to be solid in net,” Lee said. “We’re two evenly matched teams. It will come down to who wants it more and who will go the farthest to get it. It’s within or reach. I think we can take it.”
Added Martin: “Kaleb has done the job all year. We have a lot of confidence in him.”
Messalonskee swept the season series from John Bapst, winning 8-2 on Dec. 11 and then 4-1 on Feb. 18.
The Crusaders, like the Eagles, feature a deep team.
Forwards Nate Reese, Hunter Pate, Jonathan Cheff and Tyler Wheeler all contribute, while goalie Sam Lander emerged down the stretch as a formidable goalie.
But it’s the Eagles who come to Sukee with the most firepower up front.
Forwards Chase Cunningham, brother Jared Cunningham and Dan Condon have enjoyed standout seasons.
Chase Cunningham leads the team with 30 goals and 40 assists for 70 assists. Jared Cunningham has 60 points (21-39) while Condon has 55 (25-30).
Dylan Burton anchors a strong defense core while Ben Weeks has been steady in net. Burton has nine goals and 36 assists for 45 points.
Coupled with the late-season return of forward Josh Towle, and Messalonskee is a tough matchup for anybody in the state, regardless of class.
“We’ve had a good season but it’s a new start now,” Latendresse said. “We’re going to need to play a good game. We can’t just show up and win. We know they will be ready.”