MIDDLEBURY — After a pair of hard-fought wins in Maine this past weekend, the NESCAC champion Middlebury College men’s hockey team finds itself back in familiar territory against a familiar foe: The 19-4-4 Panthers will host SUNY Plattsburgh on Saturday at 7 p.m. in what will be their first NCAA appearance since 2007, when Middlebury made its 13th straight trip to the dance.
Saturday night’s NCAA Division III quarterfinal against the 18-5-3 Cardinals will be a rematch of a Feb. 2 game at Kenyon Arena won by the Panthers, 5-3.
Middlebury coach Bill Beaney said he expects a fast-paced game between two teams that like to pressure opponents all over the ice.
The Panther backs and forwards alike will have to make good, quick decisions, he said.
“The Plattsburgh group are good skaters. They’ve played a very difficult schedule, one of the toughest schedules in Division III. They’re battle-tested,” Beaney said. “They play a really up-tempo style of play with a lot of pressure. Your team has to be able to handle the pressure.”
The Panthers must also avoid unnecessary penalties, he said, something the dangerous Cardinals themselves have done well this winter.
“They’ve scored a lot of goals on the power play, so we’re going to have to be smart about staying out of the penalty box,” Beaney said.
The winner in what Beaney expects to be “a great hockey game across the board” will head to an NCAA semifinal in Lake Placid on March 19 at a time to be announced; the final will be played at 5 p.m. on March 20.
Lying in wait in a semifinal in Lake Placid will probably be mutual rival Norwich (23-1-4), which in a Saturday quarterfinal will host and be favored against whoever emerges from a late Wednesday game at Elmira between the host Soaring Eagles (18-8-1) and Curry (19-8-1).
In the other bracket, one Saturday semifinal is set between Bowdoin (19-6-1) and host Oswego (25-2). Four Western teams are vying to reach the other semifinal: Late on Wednesday, St. Norbert (21-3-3) was set to host Adrian (24-3), and St. Thomas (13-10-4) was ready to visit Gustavus Adolphus (19-6-1).
The Panthers have won eight NCAA titles, five straight from 1995-1999 and three straight from 2004-2006. Their all-time NCAA tournament record stands at 34-6-2. The Panthers and the Cardinals are 2-2 in the NCAA tournament.
NESCAC FINAL FOUR
To reach the tournament, the Panthers first had to handle Trinity in Saturday’s NESCAC semifinal and then get past host Bowdoin in Sunday’s final.
Beaney said the Panthers continued to evolve and reach their potential, not only creating chances at one end and playing sound positional defense at the other, but also winning the battles along the boards, making smart line changes and blocking shots.
“It was just the group coming together, feeling good about themselves, and reaching out and doing the little extra things,” Beaney said. “It’s at both ends of the rink, guys giving it their all. And it’s really fun to be able to sit back and enjoy the effort and enthusiasm they put forth and to see things start to fall into place.”
On Saturday, the Panthers scored three times in the second period en route to a 4-2 win over a physical Trinity (15-9-2) team. The Panthers took a 1-0 lead at 7:33 of the first period when Ken Suchoski knocked a Bryan Curran power-play feed past Bantam goalie Wesley Vesprini (36 saves).
Martin Drolet triggered the second-period onslaught with a short-handed backhander at 5:31. Middlebury made it 3-0 after a forced turnover in the Trinity zone, scoring on Mathieu Dubuc’s high backhander through a screen at 8:34.
After killing off a Trinity five-on-three power play, the Panthers gained a two-man advantage of their own and made it 4-0 when John Sullivan converted a wrap-around at 17:23.
Trinity got goals at 6:10 of the third, when Adam Houli beat John Yanchek (26 saves) to a loose puck, and at 16:21 on a solo rush by Jeffery Menard.
Beaney said the Panthers kept their heads in a tough game.
“Trinity plays a real hard-nosed style, and our guys battled through that and got I thought some real timely scoring ... We had some guys chip in and send a really good feeling through the team,” he said.
On Sunday, the Panthers edged the Polar Bears, 3-2, before 2,300 fans. Beaney said many of them made the long drive from Addison County.
“There were at least a couple hundred that were there. Our guys really appreciated the noise when we scored goals,” Beaney said.
Dubuc gave the Panthers a 2-0 lead after one period with two power-play goals. The first was set up by Charlie Strauss, who fed Dubuc out front for a one-timer at 3:45. The Panthers scored on a two-man advantage with 18 seconds left in the period, when Dubuc converted on the back post from Nick Resor for his team-leading 16th goal.
Bowdoin made it 2-1 midway through the second period on Ryan Blossom’s shorthanded breakaway. At 9:23 of the third period, Blossom slapped a shot inside the left post from the left wing to tie the game.
In the late going, Middlebury chipped the puck out of their defensive zone to neutral ice, where Charlie Townsend won a fight for it. Townsend skated into the Bowdoin zone and ripped a shot from the right circle that found the top-left corner at 18:18 for the game-winner.
Bowdoin goalie Chris Rossi made 25 stops in the game, and Yanchek made 17 saves.
Beaney was pleased with the defensive effort.
“We got off with two good power-play goals at the beginning of the game and then really settled in and played solid against a team that just kept pressuring and pressuring,” he said.