MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury College men’s hockey team on Sunday bounced back from a Saturday loss at Williams with a strong effort in a 3-1 home win over the Ephs that re-established their recent better play and helped them in the tight NESCAC playoff race.
The Panthers (11-9-2, 10-4-2 NESCAC after their fifth win in six outings) and Williams (13-6-3, 10-4-2 NESCAC) are among five teams fighting for the top four seeds and home ice for the NESCAC quarterfinals.
Bowdoin (11-2-2 NESCAC) has the inside track for first place and the right to host the final four, while Trinity (9-3-3) and Amherst (8-4-2) are also in the mix. The Panthers will conclude their season next weekend with road games at Hamilton and Amherst.
The Ephs had defeated Middlebury at Williams the night before, 6-2, in a game that Coach Bill Beaney said was not typical of the way his team has played of late, and he was happy with his team’s response
“I was thrilled. We played poorly last night, and they knew it. And I’m real proud of the way we came out and competed and battled, and that’s the kind of team that we have,” Beaney said. “A bunch of different guys stepped up.”
Beaney on Sunday also made a goalie change that paid off, giving sophomore Mike Peters (26 saves) his first-ever start. Peters played solid positionally between the pipes and controlled rebounds to deny the talented Eph forwards second-chance opportunities.
“He was always in the right place, and that’s goaltending. He was solid,” Beaney said. “He was square to the puck.”
The Panthers missed their best early opportunity: 3:10 into the game freshman McGovern pinged the right post from 15 feet out. After that the Ephs earned two power plays, but Peters was in the right place — a couple shots hit him in the shoulder and bounced high. The Panther defense also took care of business in the slot.
“I thought we had real good shape in the defensive end … We really cut back on giving them second and third chances,” Beaney said. “But I thought the goaltender didn’t give them many second or third chances. He played like he had Velcro on.”
The Panthers took the lead at 10:38. George Ordway sent Mathieu Castonguay down the left side, and Castonguay fought off a defender to shoot on Eph goalie Sean Dougherty (22 saves) from the bottom of the circle. Dougherty made the stop, but left the puck in the slot. Freshman Jack Silcoff followed and wristed it into the upper left corner from close range.
As the period wore down, Dougherty denied McGovern from the slot and twice stopped Chris Brown.
Middlebury made it 2-0 1:04 into the second period. Ben Wiggins made a strong cross-ice pass to send Louis Belisle down the left side. Dougherty stopped Belisle’s bid from the left circle, but the rebound went to Riley Dickie at the bottom of the right circle. Dickie quickly slid the puck home behind Dougherty.
Ordway and Connor Frick had chances, and the snake-bit McGovern hit the crossbar before the Ephs made it 2-1 at 9:30. Cody Skinner finished off a three-on-two break with a short wrister that broke in off Peters’ left shoulder, with nice passing between Mike Erickson and John Wickman setting up Skinner out front.
The Panthers made it 3-1 2:28 into the third period. Dickie and McGovern won a battle for the puck along the left boards, and McGovern skated out with it before finding Wiggins cutting into the high slot. Wiggins snapped a shot into the top left corner.
The Ephs’ best chance came midway through the period when they set up Evan Dugdale for a backhand out front, but Peters stopped that and Dugdale’s rebound bid. Williams pulled Dougherty with 2:12 remaining, but did not threaten seriously.
On Saturday, the Eph win ended a Panther four-game winning streak. Williams took a 2-0 lead on goals by Dugdale in the first period and then Paul Steinig’s power-play strike early in the second. Belisle converted a Jake Charles’ assist to make it 2-1 at 6:15 of the second, but Williams scored three goals in the final 6:44 of the period, with Wickman, Nick Anderson and Craig Kitto doing the damage.
Wickman scored again in the third period before Robbie Donahoe answered for Middlebury at 16:15. The Ephs’ Dougherty made 34 saves, while Panther goalies Dan Fullam (three goals-against, 16 saves) and Nick BonDurant (three goals-against, 15 saves) split time.
Beaney said on Sunday the Panthers’ winning effort was more typical.
“This is the way we’ve been playing, and last night we just took a night off,” he said.
And he remains optimistic his Panthers can make a run in the NESCAC tournament, regardless of where they end up seeded.
“As I said to these guys today, all we want you to do is go out and play, play with heart and play with pride,” he said. “When the playoffs start, it doesn’t make a difference whether you’re second, third, fourth or fifth. You’ve got to play. And we’ve seen that a lot. Home teams rarely win that NESCAC playoff.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at email@example.com.