When the 2013-2014 Groton-Dunstable hockey season was in its infancy back in November, second-year head coach Phil Rowley knew he had a different dynamic of players with the graduation of pulverizing defensemen Allan Haynes and Michael Keating. Offensively, Groton-Dunstable lost Bradley Zadrozny, the always loaded scoring cannons of Adam Kmetz and C.J. Kenny.
A hockey team is only as strong as its blue line, and with senior All-Star goalkeeper Jason Robes as its anchor, the Crusaders were in good shape. Also flanking Robes at defensemen were Connor Maguire, Anthony Resca and Matt Ovenden.
"Jason was expected to be where he is now," Rowley said of his stalwart goalkeeper. "He has one of the lowest goals against average in the state and save percentages. Connor Magurie was a steady defenseman for us last year as a junior and again gave us leadership as a captain and as a player. Anthony Resca was a big contributor last year and was very solid for us out there. The defense was what we expected it to be, but it definitely was not the physical defense we had last year with Haynes and Keating banging people around. We did a nice job keeping people outside the dots and gave Robes a chance to see the puck. When Robes sees the puck, he stops it."
On the offensive end, senior forward Josh Rabbitt brought the heat for the Crusaders.
The leading points scorer on the roster was his linemate and fellow senior, Derek March, a third-liner last year who stepped up his game and bulked up in the off-season and became a pure scoring threat. March finished the season with 29 points, three points higher than Rabbitt. Every team needs its ice-breaker and comedian -- March gladly accepted that role.
"Josh (Rabbitt) really set the tone for us every game with his physicality," Rowley said. "Rabbit would make the big hit. His goals were blue collar -- he has that garbage pail, junkyard dog mentality. He works hard in front of the net and got a lot of rebounds. March was the jokester on the team, there's no doubt about that. He always had some words to say. He was the highest leading points-getter on the team. March was a surprise with the number of points he got. He stepped it up quite a bit and brought some size and physicality to that line."
Justin Cole, a forward, was a key contributor last season. The senior co-captain finished with 11 goals and nine assists. Cole was Groton-Dunstable's traditional goal-scorer, who did it all with a bit of flare.
"He was our traditional pretty goal-scorer," the coach said of Cole. "He would get a lot of shots from the top of the slot. When he was finishing, he finished well. He got a lot of good looks and got in good position to make himself available for shots."
Having senior leadership on the lower lines is just as important as on the first, and James Tardif certainly brought that to the second line. During his junior year, Tardif seesawed between the third and fourth line, but he found his niche on the second line this season.
"James brought a lot of energy to us this year and last year," Rowley said. "He did a fantastic job on that second line. He was the driving force for that line. He did all the little things right, winning about 75 percent of his face-offs. We used him all over the ice -- he is just a fireplug, who had a lot of blocked shots. He did a lot of nice things for us.
Matt Ovenden was one of the more versatile players in the Crusaders' rotation. Ovenden waffled between both forward and defenseman -- not an easy task if you ask the veteran hockey coach.
"He brought a lot of size to our third line," Rowley said. "He would plug in for anyone -- if someone got hurt, I could move him up to second. He was a seventh man for us that would fit in anyplace. He was another kid who was just rock solid for us."
Groton-Dunstable is in good hands moving forward with Rowley and the upcoming senior class.
"I have been blessed for two years now with a great bunch of kids," Rowley said. "These kids were probably always in the shadows of Kmetz, Keating and those kids for the last three years, and this was their time to shine. I think that's the legacy they leave. I told the next group of seniors that the bar has been raised for them."