MIDDLEBURY — When the Middlebury College men’s hockey team lost games on Jan. 22 and 23 at New England College and St. Anselm in gruesome fashion — five unanswered third-period goals at NEC as a 4-2 lead evaporated that Friday followed by a stunning 4-0 setback the next day, the Panthers’ first to St. Anselm in 16 years — the question became how a young Panther team would respond.
The answer? Quite nicely, thank you very much.
This past weekend the Panthers swept visiting NESCAC foes Colby and Bowdoin, leapfrogging them into third place in the league.
And on Tuesday, Middlebury (10-3-4, 6-2-4 NESCAC) took a 5-3 win over visiting Plattsburgh, which entered the game with a 13-3-4 record and a No. 5 ranking in NCAA Division III.
Panther sophomore Martin Drolet, whose third-period goal helped abort a Cardinal rally, said the Panthers talked things out after the lost weekend in New Hampshire and decided to keep things simple.
“We just started from the beginning, going to the basics, and we just (wanted to) keep our feet moving, not complicate the game too much, just keep it real easy and get to the net and get the guys going,” he said.
Junior Ken Suchoski, who contributed a goal, an assist and some terrific penalty-killing on Tuesday, said those losses served as a “wake-up call” that united the Panthers, who have developed a new-found confidence.
“We had a good week of practice after that. Coach really worked us hard, and we really came together as a team,” Suchoski said. “I think this team is going somewhere.”
Coach Bill Beaney believes the team may have found a needed spark, that the Panthers have learned to play with more abandon.
“We got together and said, ‘You know what, the coaching staff believes in you. You believe in each other. Let’s just go out and play hard and know that, you know what, we’re going to make mistakes, but we’re going to get better,’” Beaney said.
Specifically, Beaney cited Tuesday’s third period. The Panthers took a 3-0 lead by scoring on three of four first-period shots, and saw it cut to 3-1 after a second period in which they dominated the Cardinals but couldn’t dent replacement goalie Josh Reid (19 saves). Then Plattsburgh got an early third-period goal.
But instead of folding, as they did vs. NEC or in allowing four unanswered goals vs. Southern Maine earlier in the season, the Panthers took charge.
“There was just some very good spirit on the bench,” Beaney said. “We’ve had a history this year of starting to tighten up a little bit when it gets close in the third period, and I thought our guys responded very well.”
Earlier in the game, the Panthers drew blood on their first shot. Chaz Svoboda sent the puck to Charlie Strauss to the left of the Cardinal net. Strauss sent it across to Charlie Townsend, who lifted it past starting goalie Ryan Williams into the upper right corner at 4:24.
The Cardinals then applied their most consistent pressure, but the Panther defense, as it did all night, played well, and goalie John Yanchek (24 saves) wasn’t really tested.
At 13:15, Tucker Donahoe and Charlie Nerbak forechecked the puck loose, and it popped to Trevor Pollock about 35 feet out. Pollock’s shot may have deflected off a defender; regardless, it went in off the left post to make it 2-0.
At 17:30, Bryan Curran and Mathieu Dubuc disrupted the Cardinals at center ice, and Dubuc set up Suchoski for a screened, 40-foot shot that also beat Williams inside the left post, and it was 3-0.
Reis replaced Williams in the Plattsburgh net in the second period and made several great stops in the next 20 minutes. The best came when he slid to stop a point-blank bid from Nick Resor.
Yanchek also made his best save in the period, flashing his glove to rob Greg Fosso from close range.
Plattsburgh broke through on a five-on-three power play at 18:30, when Mike Grace’s screened shot from the high slot found its way home.
Early in the third, a Cardinal tried to make a pass behind the net. It hit a Panther stick and the glass and bounced right out front to Kyle Kudroch, who buried it at 2:25.
At 4:53, Drolet stole the puck in the Plattsburgh slot, skated in alone on Reis, and tucked a backhander home inside the right post.
Not long after the Panthers killed two penalties, Townsend broke in alone on Reis. Reis stopped the puck, but Resor dove to poke it home as he was being upended from behind. At 5-2 with 8:44 to go, the lead was safe, and a late five-on-three goal from Plattsburgh’s Ian DeLong mattered little.
PANTHERS OVER BOWDOIN
On Saturday, the Panthers beat Bowdoin, 5-2. Middlebury got two goals from Strauss, one each from Tom Clayton and Townsend, and an empty-netter from Drolet. Yanchek made 22 saves, while Richard Nerland made 28 for the Polar Bears.
Against Colby, Strauss, Drolet, John Sullivan, Donahoe, Resor, Suchoski and Curran scored, while Drolet and Sullivan each recorded three assists. Max Kennedy made 20 saves for Middlebury, while two Colby goalies combined for 27 saves.
In all, Beaney believes the three games show the Panthers are not yet where they should be, but are certainly on the way. This Friday’s home game with Norwich could be revealing, for example, he said.
“We are getting better in every aspect of the game,” Beaney said. “But as I say, it’s three games, and I know we have a number of tough ones coming up, and we’ve got to get better if we’re really going to be a serious contender at the end of the year.”