DEERFIELD, Mass. -- If you observe Dana Barbin long enough, you will notice sooner rather than later that the 23-year Phillips Exeter boys hockey coach's demeanor doesn't change all that much. For the most part, he stays relatively even keel most of the time, showing no signs of being flustered.
Oh sure, there are those moments when he will casually let a referee know about a blown call or two. But otherwise, his appearance on the bench stays stoic.
The Big Red have adopted some of Barbin's mannerisms, in the sense of they never seem to get too rattled or to high emotionally on the ice.
It is that attitude which has helped keep Exeter the No. 1 program in New England according to U.S. Hockey Report. The Big Red did nothing to jeopardize that status Saturday evening as they shutout Deerfield Academy 4-0.
"I thought we played a pretty solid game tonight," said Barbin. "I'm always happy when we don't give up any goals. We didn't give them much once they got inside our defensive zone, and even on their power plays, our penalty kill did a really good job."
Exeter (24-2-2) has Proctor and Andover remaining on the schedule before turning its sights on the Elite 8 Tournament. Last year, the Big Red were felled by Gunnery in the semifinal round of the Elite 8. Exeter last won the Division 1 New England Prep championship in 1999.
"We'll be ready for the playoffs but we never look beyond the Andover game," Barbin said. "That is a special night for the kids and a lot of alumni will be back for that one. Andover will send several buses up full of students. It is always a huge event and it should make for a great atmosphere."
The Big Red started off this season by rolling off 16 consecutive victories and were 21-0-2 at one point. But since February 11th, they have experienced a pair of defeats against Proctor and Northfield Mt-Hermon.
The last thing on this club's mind it to head into the postseason less than peaking. However, if you take into account their performance against Deerfield, it appears that is not the case.
Exeter wasted little time jumping on the Big Green, scoring a pair of first period goals. Senior forward Teddy Hart got things started at 7:41. Situated just in front of the crease, Hart grabbed hold of a loose puck and tapped a shot past Samuel Vigneault for a 1-0 lead. For the much of this contest, Vigneault, only a sophomore, kept his club into this one by finishing with 27 stops.
Less than two minutes Hart's tally, the Big Red were back on the attack. A shot by Jordan Haney from the right circle was re-directed past Vigneault by Andy Espinoza. Exeter continued to establish its presence for most of the opening period, forcing Deerfield into committing several turnovers inside the neutral zone, and limiting the Big Green's attempts within its defensive zone.
Espinoza put the Big Red on top by three goals at the 10:44 mark of the second. A nice pass from Peter Christie from the left circle found Espinoza in front of the crease. The senior, with back to Vigneault, quickly spun around and fired a shot low left corner.
"Everything with us is all about mentality," said Espinoza, a Philadelphia native who now has 26 goals on the season. "We go into every game knowing we need to take it one step at a time. We only try to focus on the team we are facing and not look ahead. We embrace being the No. 1 team. We accept the challenge and we continue to work as a complete unit. The fluidity throughout our team is great. Every one is buying into Coach Barbin's strategy and it is paying off."
Deerfield (3-17-3) showed its hand early, displaying a lack of personnel to match up against Exeter's more-talented group. The Big Green, who picked up a win over Williston-Northampton on Friday – their first since December 21 – had difficulty getting shots in on Exeter netminder Bryan Botcher (18 saves). For the most part, the Big Red forced Deerfield to work along the outside. When the Big Green were on the power play, they still could manage nothing, going 0 for 6 on the man advantage.
A three-goal deficit heading into the final frame is not something considered insurmountable. Deerfield was still in this contest with a full 18 minutes left to be played. The one thing the Big Green could not afford was committing penalties.
Unfortunately, they missed the memo. Deerfield virtually played shorthanded the entire period after seeing five players be sent to the penalty box. Any comeback hopes at that point were tossed out the window as the Big Green were now forced to play back on their heels and keep Exeter from adding to its total. But even that failed.
With under five minutes remaining, senior Sterling Weatherbie deflected a Christie shot into the back of net on the powerplay for Exeter's final goal on the night.
"Everyone here has a role and everyone accepts the role they have," Espinoza said. "That's why we are playing as well as we are. The best thing about this team is that everyone is so close. Last year we were a good team but there was a little bit of hostility within our locker room. This year there is none of that. It's one big family that works together."