BANGOR, Maine — At the outset of the hockey season, the Eastern Maine Class B coaches said there was parity in their division.
They were right.
As the teams head down the home stretch, it appears to be a four-team race with Orono and Presque Isle also lurking as dark horses.
Entering Wednesday night’s play, defending champ Messalonskee of Oakland was 9-1 and atop the Heal Points standings followed by John Bapst of Bangor (7-3), Brewer (7-3), Hampden Academy (3-4), Orono (6-4), Presque Isle (5-6) and Lawrence of Fairfield (4-8).
Seven teams make the playoffs.
On the outside looking in were Houlton-Hodgdon (3-9), Winslow (2-9) and Old Town (0-10).
“It’s big-time wide open,” said Presque Isle coach Carl Flynn. “Everybody is beatable.”
“The playoffs are really going to be something this year,” predicted John Bapst coach Gene Fadrigon. “It has been kind of crazy.”
The results speak for themselves.
John Bapst and Messalonskee split one-goal games, each winning at home.
Messalonskee beat Brewer 7-6 and Brewer has split two-goal games with Hampden Academy.
Brewer beat John Bapst 5-3, but John Bapst beat Hampden 6-4.
“John Bapst has been the biggest surprise,” said Flynn. “I expected them to be good but not this good.”
Hampden Academy’s 5-3 win over Brewer on Monday opened some eyes.
“Hampden has a very balanced team,” observed Orono coach Greg Hirsch.
The consensus among the coaches is that Messalonskee and Brewer have dynamic game-changing top lines but not much depth, while Hampden Academy and John Bapst have more depth and can wear teams down.
Messalonskee coach Mike Latendresse, whose top line includes the Cunningham brothers, 18-goal scorer Chase and 15-goal scorer Jared, along with Josh Towle, said he agrees with the consensus.
“John Bapst and Hampden may not have players with the skill of the Cunningham brothers, but the combination of the players they have on their top two lines makes them really dangerous,” said Latendresse. “They’re able to come at you with their depth and that makes a big difference.”
So Latendresse and his coaching staff are addressing the issue.
“We are trying to develop our third line. We have a lot of younger guys and we’re trying to get the depth that we need,” said Latendresse. “We used a deeper bench the last two or three games.”
Latendresse said the 5-4 overtime loss to John Bapst in which the Crusaders overcame a two-goal deficit in the third period reinforced his belief that he needs to develop depth.
“We were a little tired, but Bapst seemed fresh and excited,” said Latendresse.
He has tinkered with his top line, using players such as Jake Dexter and Kalib Bernatchez with the Cunningham brothers in addition to Towle.
He said his team has received a lift from three freshmen: Jared Cunningham and defensemen Sam Bell and Dylan Burton, and first-year starter Ben Weeks, a junior, has been stellar in goal.
Latendresse said two teams who could give the top teams fits in the playoffs are Orono and Lawrence.
“Orono has [goalie] Mike Brown and he can steal a win and Lawrence is getting some of its players back [from injury],” said Latendresse.
Brewer coach Dave Shedd said the Cunninghams make the Eagles a formidable foe.
“They’re very shifty and very fast. If you make a mistake, they’ll make you pay for it. They’re never more than 35 feet away from one another,” Shedd said.
Shedd has to deal with the loss of workhorse defenseman Brody Valley, who will be out at least another three weeks with mononucleosis.
“He’s solid defensively and can change the game with his physical presence,” said Shedd. “He’s also a good passer and gets the puck out of our end [effectively].”
Junior Avery Hileman is out with a shoulder injury, which further depletes Brewer’s depth on defense.
Senior Jake Caron anchors the defense and is paired with freshman Jack Schroder. Seniors Josh McNally and Jimmy Donnelly comprise the other defense tandem.
The line of Spencer Valley between cousin Gabe Valley and Gehrig White has been prolific, and Shedd is hoping his second line of Andrew Collins, Dylan Severance and Andrew Fleishman can step up and provide supplemental scoring on a consistent basis.
Former second-liner Mike Armstrong is out with a concussion.
“Spencer Valley is a horse. He carries their offense. He’s very difficult to defend,” said Orono’s Hirsch.
Hampden Academy coach Bill Schwarz has been pleased to see his team putting the puck in the net, scoring nine goals in its two games previous to Wednesday’s game against Messalonskee.
Linemates Cooper Antone and Luther Vom Eigen have been the offensive catalysts.
But now Schwarz is hoping they can keep the puck out of their net with more regularity.
“We’re looking for better coverage in front of our net,” said Schwarz. “And we need to move the puck up to the forwards quicker.”
Riley Eastman and Rob Stowe have been rock solid on defense, he said, and sophomore left wing Dylan Cray has “really stepped up to the plate the last few games.”
John Bapst’s Fadrigon echoed a similar sentiment.
“We definitely need to get better in our defensive zone coverage,” said Fadrigon. “We’ve concentrated on that quite a bit in practice. We’ve been scoring goals, but we don’t want to swap goals. After we score, we want to keep the other team off the scoreboard.”
Seniors Jacob Fletcher, Alex LaFrance and Seth Yachinin are having productive seasons and sophomores Jonathan Cheff and Hunter Pate headline a group of youthful contributors. A seasoned defense corps and workhorse goalie Jaron Leonard have been impressive.
Orono will be without six suspended players for four more games, so Hirsch is preaching energy conservation and capitalizing on scoring chances.
He will have only two forward lines and three defensemen for the next week and a half.
But he noted that this will give him a great chance to develop depth, which could make his team even better when the six players return.
Freshman Makayla Brown, who saw limited playing time before the suspensions, has been moved up to the top line with Matt Cloutier and Conor McKaig, and she set up Cloutier’s game-winner against Lawrence.
“She’s got great hockey sense and very good hands and is a smart hockey player,” said Hirsch, who also will rely heavily on her brother, goaltender Mike Brown.
Speaking of brother-sister teammates, freshman Jillian Flynn has earned the No. 1 spot in goal for Presque Isle while older brother Adam closes in on 100 career points. He has 94.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Makayla Brown's name as Mikayla Brown.