Heading into this past weekend’s NESCAC tournament quarterfinal matchup against Amherst on Saturday, Feb. 23, the Middlebury men’s hockey team did not have recent history in its favor.
Middlebury was 0-5 in its last five games against the Lord Jeffs heading into last Saturday’s contest, including a 5-3 loss just a week before and a close, 4-3 defeat in last year’s tournament title game. In fact, not since a 4-1 regular season win in January 2011, 25 months before, had the Panthers bested Amherst.
Despite Amherst’s recent series domination, Middlebury used four unanswered goals, including two in the third period by Louis Belisle ’14, to hold on for a 4-3 win and advance to its 13th NESCAC semifinal game in 14 seasons. The Panthers are slated to take on the number-seven Bowdoin Polar Bears this Saturday, March 2, for an opportunity to compete in the program’s 12th NESCAC title game.
Even though the Panthers had some recent struggles at the hands of Amherst, head coach Bill Beaney said his team was prepared for the challenge.
“I think that of the five games we lost to them, if you take away the empty net goals, you had five one-goal games that could’ve gone either way,” said Beaney. “You have to believe in yourself and keep doing the little things. I also can’t tell you that we played better this past Saturday than the previous one.”
Belisle echoed his coach’s outlook on the matchup.
“We knew that we’re going to play a fierce Amherst squad, and that all the returning players still remember the loss in the final game last year,” he said. “We were in a bit of a slump against this team in the past few years, but we were not going to let them end our season two years in a row.”
Both teams opened the game playing solid defensive hockey. After remaining knotted at zero for the game’s first 16 minutes, Amherst’s Andrew Kurlandski jammed a rebound past Middlebury goalie Mike Peters ’15 to give the home team the 1-0 lead heading into the first intermission.
Even though his team played strong defense, Belisle talked a little bit about his team’s slow offensive start.
“We played a strong first period, but we seemed to be hesitant to go forward and attack with numbers in the offensive zone, and [Amherst] capitalized on a turnover,” he said. “Starting the second period we applied pressure on them, attacked with speed and created odd man rushes. We took control of the game and imposed our rhythm.”
Captain Chris Steele ’13 also mentioned how Peters kept the team in the game in the second period.
“Mike Peters was great in the net for us, especially in the second period,” said Steele. “He made a bunch of saves that kept us in it and the team rallied around that. Knowing that Peters was on top of his game allowed us to impose our style of play on Amherst for a large part of the game.”
The turning point for the Panthers came at 6:54 of the second period, when Robbie Donahoe ’14 converted on a four-on-three power play opportunity with assists from Matt Silcoff ’16 and Ronald Fishman ’16. Then, after several impressive saves from Peters to keep the game tied, Robbie Dobrowski ’15 scored off an Amherst turnover at the 13:24 mark.
Beaney spoke to the importance of Peters’s play and Dobrowski’s go-ahead goal in the second.
“The big difference was our goaltender Peters played well and in my opinion won the game for us in the second period when Amherst had a number of opportunities that he stopped,” said Beaney. “He didn’t give second chances and anticipated where the puck would be and was huge in that regard. On Dobrowski’s goal, Trevor Pollock ’13 did a great job forechecking, knocked a puck loose onto the stick of Dobrowski – a positive goal for us.”
In the third period, Belisle took over the offensive load to seal the game for Middlebury. He struck first 3:24 into the frame when he took a feed from Evan Neugold ’16 and buried a wrist shot in the top left corner of the net. Then, after holding Amherst out of the net for the next 12 minutes, Belisle beat the Amherst goalie with a low five-hole shot, finding helpers from Dobrowski and Silcoff.
Belisle said he was happy to help his team with the two goals.
“It was very important for the team to come out strong in the third period, and put the game out of reach early,” he said. “We swarmed them right from the drop of the puck, and I was able to take advantage of great plays made by my teammates. Those were undoubtedly two of the most important goals of my Middlebury career, and they came as a result of a relentless effort by the team. Our main goal was to win the game, and this is what I am most excited about.”
Beaney also spoke highly of his junior’s clutch performance.
“[Belisle] led the way, and the goals were huge,” said Beaney. “He has really come on from a scoring perspective since we moved him back to defense. He has to be one of the, if not the, top-scoring defenseman in the NESCAC. Playing from the back allows him to attack with speed and to create a lot of opportunities. We nominated him for a NESCAC all-star selection, and he has been one of our top three or four players this year.”
Belisle, with his 13 goals and 10 assists, along with Silcoff, with 11 goals and 12 assists, are tied for 11th in total league scoring with 23 points apiece.
After leading 4-1 late in the period, the Panthers survived a late scare when Amherst scored two goals in the game’s final three minutes. After Kevin Ryder scored his third of the year at 17:13, Kurlandski added his second of the game with an extra Amherst attacker on the ice. Middlebury withstood the late onslaught, escaping with the 4-3 win.
“When things at the end started to get close there was a sense of calm confidence on the bench and we knew we were going to get it done,” said Steele. “[Peters] showed great maturity throughout the game, and there was never a doubt that he would get the job done.”
Looking forward to Saturday’s matchup against Bowdoin, the Panthers need to find some success against a team that recently stymied them in a 3-0 loss on Jan. 19, despite outshooting the Polar Bears by 13.
“I think this group could win the whole NESCAC championshsip,” said Beaney. “We’ve always had great games against Bowdoin – we’ve had a good run in the playoffs against them. I know our guys will come in playing loose and confident, and the game will be fun with a great atmosphere.”
Steele also stressed the importance of preparation and focus in practice leading up to the game.
“Preparation in practice this week will be the key to success in the NESCAC semis,” he said. “As a team we have matured since last playing Bowdoin, and the younger guys now have a little bit of experience with playoff hockey. It’s a new season and I know that our guys are ready to take advantage of the opportunity we have at hand.”