MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury College men’s hockey team continued its late-season surge on Saturday, when the 17-4-4 Panthers dismissed visiting Tufts, 6-2, in a NESCAC quarterfinal.
The win was the Panthers’ 10th in 11 tries and sends them to next weekend’s NESCAC final four at top-seeded Bowdoin. The Panthers will take on No. 5 Trinity, and the Polar Bears will face No. 6 Hamilton. Middlebury tied Trinity on the road, 2-2 on Jan. 15. The Panthers defeated Bowdoin, 5-2, in Middlebury on Jan. 30.
How much progress have the Panthers made? Back on Nov. 20, Middlebury tied host Tufts, 3-3, in their season opener.
On Saturday, the Panthers pelted Jumbo goalie Scott Barchard (50 saves) with 56 shots and allowed the 12-10-3 Jumbos just 14 on their own John Yanchek (12 saves).
Senior captain John Sullivan said the season’s turning point came during a two-loss weekend when the Panthers blew a 4-2 third-period lead at New England College and then were shut out at St. Anselm.
Sullivan said he and the team’s other three seniors delivered a tough message at a players-only meeting after the NEC disaster that touched on what they saw as lackluster play in recent games.
“Guys weren’t fully invested in what the cause was. They weren’t playing for the greater sake of the team. They were playing for wanting to get their stats, for making sure they were getting their playing time,” Sullivan said. “The seniors kind of laid their cards on the table. (We said) ‘You know, this is something that means a lot to us. It should mean a lot to you guys.’ The guys saw that, and things started to get better.”
On the turnaround, Coach Bill Beaney cited the seniors’ play (Sullivan and Charlie Townsend, especially, have produced), better work from Yanchek and the defense, the usual progress a team makes in the course of a season, and a change in his practice tactics.
“Part of it was the natural maturation process,” Beaney said. “Part of it was the lost weekend in New Hampshire. They and we as coaches together took a hard look at what we needed to do and I think we went back to basics a little bit. One of the things with me is I get a little impatient and I like to see new things at practice, and maybe we needed more repetitions to get better.”
But Beaney also made it clear senior leadership played a role.
“Sully keeps hammering away at them and not letting them off the hook,” he said.
Now the Panthers look at a dominant 6-2 win and say they should have played better.
“We really weren’t burying our chances. We really weren’t executing,” Sullivan said. “It was a little sloppy. And against a better team, they’ll capitalize on that.”
Beaney said the Panthers did “some good stuff” Saturday, even though they might have gotten a little careless once it became clear the Jumbos couldn’t skate with them. They won most 50-50 battles, and after letting the Jumbos skate too deep into their zone early in the first period and score once, they kept traffic away from Yanchek the rest of the way.
“Sporadically we played pretty well. I don’t think we were as consistent and quite as sharp as we need to be when you’re going down the stretch run,” Beaney said. “But I thought overall there were some good things that happened. Probably the best thing was that when they scored early it woke us up.”
That score came at 3:39 of the first period, when Tom Derosa backhanded a loose puck from the second of two major scrums in front of Yanchek.
At 12:32, Mathieu Dubuc evened the score with the first of his three goals. A.J. Meyer sent him in on Barchard with a smart clearing pass, and Dubuc ripped a 10-foot forehand into the upper right corner.
At 14:46, Middlebury took the lead. Martin Drolet kept the puck in the Jumbo end, and Dubuc won it behind the right-wing circle. He fed Jak Knelman out front for a one-timer to the short side, and the Panthers led after one period.
The Panthers controlled the second period, but added only one more score. At the end of a power play, defenseman Mathieu Castonguay centered from the left boards, and it deflected in off Barchard for the freshman’s first career goal.
The Panthers found the range in a whistle-filled third period — at one point there were six skaters crammed into the penalty boxes. At 6:08, Dubuc wristed a shot home on a feed from Tom Clayton, with Townsend also assisting on a power play. At 6:41, Castonguay’s charmed day continued: His shot from the left point was tipped home by a defender.
Tufts made it 5-2 on Conor Pieri’s 4-on-3 power-play goal at 10:37. Dubuc completed his hat trick at 16:43, skating in from the blue line and around a Jumbo defender in the right-wing circle and beating Barchard with another wicked wrister.
Now the Panthers have at least one more road trip to make together, one they probably would not have made if they had not rededicated themselves back in late January.
“We really saw the team come together,” Sullivan said. “It just kept going and going, and now we’re at the point we’re contending for a championship, and there’s nothing better than that.”
Beaney knows one funny bounce can dash title dreams that are now realistic. But he said nothing can take away what the Panthers have already accomplished.
“It’s been fun. It’s a great group. If it lasts one more game, it’s one more game,” he said. “But I’m thrilled they come out every day and look to improve and enjoy each other.”