HALLOWELL — Senior Hunter Russell and junior Sloan Berthiaume can count the number of goals they’ve combined for on one hand.

Actually, they can can count them on one finger.

Following a six-year absence from postseason play, Gardiner Area High School is back in the Class B South hockey semifinals for the second consecutive season. The Tigers’ formula has been fairly simple: Play well in your own zone and the rest will take care of itself.

“We need to be physical, we need to have good breakouts, we need to backcheck and have good defensive coverage in our own zone,” said Gardiner head coach Sam Moore, whose top-seeded Tigers meet No. 4 Greely in the B South semifinals at 8 Friday night at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston. “If we go out and play our game, I really think that things should work out well.”

Russell and Berthiaume, beyond standout goaltender Michael Poirier, have been big reasons for the Gardiner resurgence. The Tigers are built from the back out, with the team’s top two defensemen playing on opposite pairings. Russell plays with fellow senior Alex Porter, while Berthiaume is often matched up with junior Connor Manter.

While they might not be paired up together often, Russell and Berthiaume interact like they’ve skated alongside one another their entire hockey lives.

“Goal scoring-wise, I’ve only got one goal,” Berthiaume said.

Is that more than Russell has?

“Yeah, I’ve got none,” Russell responded with a laugh.

Berthiaume: “Yeah, that’s right. I’ve got more than you.”

Russell shakes his head, as if he’s obviously heard this line a hundred times.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Russell said. “It’s only one more.”

On the ice, they let their play dictate the conversation. On any given shift, one of the two can be tasked with holding the opposition at bay.

“It’s not really something you think about too much, it’s more about acting on it,” Berthiaume said of the team’s defensive approach. “It’s about realizing what’s going on, seeing the play and having the hockey knowledge to react.”

Defensive zone play has been crucial for Gardiner (13-5-0) this season. Eleven times the Tigers scored four or fewer goals, and 10 of the team’s 18 games were decided by two or fewer goals.

Last season, Gardiner dispatched of Cape Elizabeth in the semifinals after entering the tournament as the No. 2 seed. This year, their reward for earning top billing is a matchup with Greely (13-6-0), winner of 11 straight games heading into Friday. Included in that stretch was a 5-4 win over Gardiner on Feb. 7, a game that saw the Tigers take a 4-2 lead into the third period.

With a tough non-league schedule, the Tigers used each game day as another step toward the postseason — when games get tighter and goals are harder to come by.

“It’s about making the smart play, not the best play,” Russell said. “We know what it’s like to play high-caliber hockey. We’re not coasting through the season so that we get surprised when we get to the playoffs.”

Moore points to both Russell and Berthiaume as leaders in the dressing room and on the practice ice. His trust in the two defensemen is obvious.

“Those guys, every time they hit the ice you know they’re going to give you everything they’ve got,” Moore said. “They don’t make a lot of mistakes, but when they do, they’re the first guys there trying to make up for it.

“They’ve come a long way. They’ve played against a lot of tough teams and a lot of good forwards. They’re really where I want them to be.”

No. 2 York and No. 6 Yarmouth meet at 6 p.m. in the other semifinal Friday night.

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

[email protected]

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC

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