MIDDLEBURY — Late in the third period of Saturday’s NESCAC quarterfinal, the Middlebury College men’s hockey team had a couple monkeys on its back despite the Panthers’ much-improved play of late.
The Panthers (now 13-9-3 overall) had shrugged off a midseason slump with a 5-1-1 surge to seize the No. 3 seed in the NESCAC playoffs with an 11-6-1 league mark. That seed earned them the right to host No. 6 Wesleyan on Saturday.
But most members of the Middlebury team also were there a year ago, when No. 6 Colby upset the Panthers in a home quarterfinal.
And those blemishes in the past seven games were both the result of poor third periods in Kenyon: They surrendered two late goals vs. Tufts in a 2-2 tie, and two third-period goals a week before vs. first-place Amherst in a 2-1 loss.
“The third period has not been ours this year,” said Coach Bill Beaney, “and it’s been weighing on them.”
On Saturday, the Panthers again dominated most of the first two periods against Wesleyan (7-10-2 league, 12-11-2 overall) and took a 1-0 lead late in the second.
After senior Martin Drolet helped work the puck low to classmate Charlie Strauss, Strauss wheeled behind the net toward the left circle. He fed freshman Derek Pimental near the faceoff dot. Pimental flipped the puck cross-ice to senior defender Tom Cantwell, who slipped in from the right point.
From the bottom of the circle at 17:51, Cantwell banked a shot in off desperately sliding Cardinal goalie Glenn Stowell.
That lead held up until 11:14 of the third, when the Cardinal forecheck caused the puck to bounce from the right-wing boards to Cardinal James Albrecht, alone in the slot: He picked the upper right corner from 10 feet out to make it 1-1.
And despite the Panthers’ edge in play — their final advantage in shots on goal was 29-12 — the monkeys grew heavy.
“We’ve had a lot of adversity, a lot of injuries this year and a lot of tough one-goal losses,” Beaney said. “When they scored that goal, the one thing the coaches had to do was become cheerleaders. We couldn’t let them get down.”
But he Panthers simply kept on playing the style that had been effective all day: moving the puck carefully out of their own end, minimizing turnovers, forechecking hard, and working along the boards.
As the game neared the three-minute mark, Panther senior Charles Nerbak and junior Trevor Pollock battled two Cardinals for the puck near the Wesleyan left-wing circle. The puck popped free back toward the point.
Junior defenseman Chris Steele swept in, picked it up and turned to goal. One Cardinal met him, but Steele skated around him, and then whipped a 15-footer home under the crossbar at 3:03, just before he was buried under a knot of jubilant Panthers.
“What a wonderful play that was,” Beaney said.
Cantwell, an assistant captain, noted that not only was it an amazing goal, but Steele is known for careful defense, not his scoring: The goal was Steele’s third of the year.
“Oh, my gosh, unbelievable,” Cantwell said. “Chris Steele, he’s been working hard all year, and it’s great to see a guy like him get a goal like that.”
Of course, the Panthers still had to make that 2-1 score stand up. They did: Those final three minutes played out like most of the rest of the game. The Panther defense — Cantwell, Steele, senior Tucker Donahoe, freshman Alex Walsh, sophomore Robbie Donahoe and junior Mathieu Castonguay — all worked well to limit the Cardinal opportunities, both by defending and by clearing the zone well.
With the Cardinals relying on their forechecking and forcing neutral zone miscues to create scoring chances, the Panthers responded well, Beaney said.
“We played a style we had to play to win. We found a way to cut down on turnovers. We’re never going to score a lot of goals, but we kept the shots down, we kept them in front of us, we moved the puck pretty smartly to spaces, and didn’t get beat many times one on one,” Beaney said.
When the Cardinals did create chances, freshman goalie Dan Fullam — whose assumption of the starting job coincided with the Panthers’ hot streak — answered. He stopped Nik Tasiopoulus curling from behind in the first, denied Keith Buehler from the right-wing circle in the third, and with nine minutes to go flashed his right pad to stop Ryan Hoffman breaking in from the right side.
At the other end, Louis Belisle, Brett Brazier, Strauss and Chris Brown created good chances for the Panthers, while Mike Longo, Tom Freyre and Belisle did vital work killing three second-period penalties.
“It was a great team effort,” Cantwell said. “It wasn’t pretty at times, but we found a way to win.”
Earlier this season, when the Panthers were scuffling, Beaney said the Panthers were not focused enough in practice. On Saturday, Cantwell, one of seven seniors on the roster, was asked how they had turned around their season.
“We’ve really found a way to compete each day in practice, and that certainly translates,” Cantwell said. “Good things happen to those who work hard.”
Next up for the Panthers is the league final four this weekend at No. 1 Amherst. The Jeffs will play No. 5 Williams on Saturday, while Middlebury will face Bowdoin. The Panthers beat Bowdoin, 7-1, in December, but lost to the Polar Bears, 5-0, in January. Middlebury has lost two one-goal games to Amherst, and defeated Williams twice. The tournament winner gets an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III tournament.
Cantwell said the Panthers are looking forward to the challenge.
“I think we have the ability and the will power to beat anyone. But we have to play 21 guys for 60 minutes,” he said. “I think we’re starting to show we can do that.”
Beaney praised Strauss for his leadership in helping right the ship this season, but said all the Panthers deserve credit.
“I just think these guys took a good hard look at where they were at and what it would take for them to be successful,” he said.
Beaney believes the Panthers have a legitimate shot next weekend, but regardless of the results he said he is happy for his team.
“Whether or not we win another game,” he said, “this group has been a success.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at email@example.com.