Essex edges shorthanded Tiger boys' hockey

ESSEX FORWARD WILLEM Barwin wraps the puck under Tiger goalie Jeffrey Stearns in the second period of Tuesday’s game for the only goal. Essex improved to 8-1-1 by edging the 5-5 Tigers. Independent photo/Steve James

TIGER DEFENSEMAN TUCKER Stearns flips a backhand pass to a teammate as Middlebury moves the puck into the Essex zone in the second period of Tuesday’s 1-0 home loss. Independent photo/Steve James

TIGER DEFENSEMAN ABEL Anderson tussles for the puck with Essex High School forward Nicholas Taylor in the second period of Tuesday’s one-goal home loss. Independent photo/Steve James

TIGER DEFENSEMAN TUCKER Stearns chases the puck into the Essex zone in the third period of Middlebury’s 1-0 home loss to the Hornets on Tuesday. Independent photo/Steve James

MIDDLEBURY UNION HIGH School forward Bode Rubright moves the puck into the Essex zone as the Tigers look to tie the game in the third period of Tuesday’s 1-0 home loss. The Tigers dropped to 5-5. Independent photo/Steve James

ESSEX GOALTENDER PAUL Gordon dives to cover the puck as Tiger forward Bode Rubright closes in during the third period of Middlebury’s 1-0 home loss on Tuesday. Gordon made 10 saves for the 8-1-1 Hornets. Independent photo/Steve James

MIDDLEBURY — A Middlebury Union High School boys’ hockey team bit by the injury bug did almost everything it needed to do to defeat visiting Division I power Essex on Tuesday.

The Tigers defended responsibly all over the ice, for the most part stayed out of the penalty box, got strong goaltending, and played hard.

But what they couldn’t do — with senior captains Kam Bartlett and Devon Kearns out of the lineup due to possibly season-ending injuries and third senior forward Logan Pierson-Flagg studying abroad — was generate consistent offensive pressure or take advantage of the chances they did create.

The upshot was the Hornets earned a 1-0 victory and improved to 8-1-1, good enough for a virtual first-place tie with 7-1 Spaulding. The Tigers, who had won four of five, slipped back to 5-5 and into sixth place, well ahead of seventh-place Rutland (2-6-1) but on the heels of fifth-place Stowe (5-4). Records for other teams were prior to Wednesday action.

Tiger Coach Derek Bartlett would have loved to come away with a better result, but could find no fault with the energy the Tigers put forth.

“It was a heck of an effort tonight with what we had in the lineup. Guys got a considerable amount of playing time that haven’t had much up to this point, and they stepped up,” Bartlett said.  “I felt like we were in it.”

The Tigers ran three lines and five defenders for most of the game to keep fresh skaters on the ice, and Bartlett said that although the offense didn’t always click, all of his players worked hard to keep the Hornets in check. And the Tigers did push in the late going.

“The pace tonight was awesome. It was up and down. I thought the difference was their guys were a little more confident with the puck on their stick and knew what to do with less time and space, where we were figuring that out,” Bartlett said. “But I think the third period we settled down a little bit and started making better decisions and started getting pucks deep and get into our forecheck, which we need to be able to do to be effective.”

In the back, goalie Jeffrey Stearns backstopped MUHS with 21 saves, and defenders Tucker Stearns, Daniel Hodsden, Abel Anderson, Matthew Kiernan and Joey Niemo all submitted strong games.

Scoring chances were few, but the Tigers did have the first of the game, as Bode Rubright shot from the right circle and forced Essex goalie Paul Gordon to make the first of his 10 saves at 3:35 of the first period. The Tigers also earned a power play in the first that was largely ineffective, but a cross-crease pass from Hodsden to Owen Lawton just missed connecting.

Late in the period Hale Hescock tried to curl around the Hornet net and tuck the puck in, but his shot slid wide left. At the other end, the best of Jeffrey Stearns’ five first-period saves came when he denied a point-blank Andrew Forcier tip.

Stearns did well to deny another tip early in the second, but could not stop Willem Barwin’s one-timer at the right post at 2:10. The puck apparently bounced to Barwin from the far side of the crease off Hornet Ryan Clark.

“I felt like we were a little unlucky, the bounce of the puck. I thought positionally we were there, and it just ended up going right to the Essex kid and he finished it,” Bartlett said. “The initial puck went to the net, and our guy went to smash it to the corner, and unfortunately it just hit somebody and just came right back out and went right to the Essex kid’s stick.”

Gordon denied Ryan Nadeau from off the left post midway through the period, and the Tigers failed to land a shot on net during another power play.

Late in the period Stearns gloved Max Line’s blast from the right circle, and early in the third period he stopped Matthew Cincotta’s low shot from the slot and another Line bid from the right circle. Gordon stopped Rubright’s high screened shot from between the circles shortly afterward.

The Tigers then killed a penalty, holding the Hornets without a shot. Andy Giorgio, Robbie Bicknell, Hescock and Rubright up front and Kiernan, Hodsden, Anderson and Niemo in the back all excelled in smothering the Hornet power play in a key situation, and Bicknell ripped a shot on net immediately after the penalty expired. “Our PK in the third period, that was awesome,” Bartlett said.

After that, Bartlett shortened the rotation, and the Tigers created chances. Rubright and Nadeau teamed up for a shift that bottled up the Hornets, and Gordon denied Rubright again. In the late going the Tiger forecheck consistently disrupted the Hornets, even during a late penalty on MUHS, but the tying goal remained elusive.

“As coaches we felt if we got to the 10-minute mark, a little less than 10 minutes, let’s shorten the bench up and let’s get a push at this, which I thought we did,” he said.

Bartlett said the team’s health remains a question mark, but he remains confident in his team heading into a Saturday game at 1-8-1 South Burlington.

“There were a lot of good things tonight against a very good program,” he said. “Down the stretch here we have what it takes to be competitive. The second half could be interesting. If we can get healthy we should be good to go.”

Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at

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