Just two weeks into regular season action, the 11th-placed Middlebury men’s hockey team has already seen its fair share of adversity. The now 2-1-1, 1-0-1 in the NESCAC, Panthers battled back from multiple deficits during their first weekend of play, Nov. 16 and 17, to defeat Colby 5-2 and tie Bowdoin 4-4 before suffering a last-second 5-4 loss at the hands of perennial rival Norwich, currently placed second, in the final of the PrimeLink Great Northern Shootout on Saturday, Nov. 24. Middlebury also defeated seventh-placed Plattsburgh 3-2 in the tournament semifinal last Friday to reach its first PrimeLink final since the 2008-2009 season.
In the PrimeLink tournament, hosted by Norwich, the Panthers’ opening-round game against the Cardinals offered some redemption for Middlebury, who was defeated 7-0 by Plattsburgh last January. Despite being down 1-0 at the end of the first period, Derek Pimentel ’15 connected in the second period on a rebound chance for his first goal of the year to tie the game at one. First-year Evan Neugold ’16 then converted a goal after shaking a Plattsburgh defender to push the score to 2-1. George Ordway ’15 sealed the game with a goal in the third period for Middlebury, who held on for a 3-2 win.
Coach Bill Beaney remarked on how his team gained confidence throughout the semifinal.
“We didn’t know how we would match up against a top-five team in the country,” said Beaney. “The first seven or eight minutes of the game were played at a pace that we were not used to, but fortunately we stayed with it and from the middle of the first period onwards I feel that we played as well as, if not better, than Plattsburgh. It was a statement and a confidence builder that we could play with one of the best teams in the country.”
The next day against Norwich, the Panthers found themselves trailing 2-1 late in the second period before Matthew Silcoff ’16, named Outstanding Rookie of the Tournament, scored his third of the season on the power play. Mike Longo ’14 then scored 42 seconds later to give the Panthers a 3-2 lead heading into the third.
After a scoreless run of play, Brendan McGovern ’16 scored at the 12:22 mark to extend Middlebury’s lead to 4-2. Unfortunately for the Panthers, a controversial holding penalty at the 13:51 mark saw the Cadets convert on a chance and subsequently head to the power play, a sequence Beaney described as a “perfect storm” in favor of Norwich.
The Cadets scored again in the dying moments of the power play to knot the contest at 4-4. Then, in the waning moments of the third period, Travis Janke of Norwich intercepted the puck and found Colin Mulvey, who scored his second goal in just under four minutes to clinch the PrimeLink title with 6.7 seconds left on the clock.
Despite the gut wrenching loss, Chris Brown ’13 says his team is looking forward.
“I think the PrimeLink Tourney gave us a great snapshot of where we are at this point in the year,” said Brown. “The loss was heartbreaking, but we’re going to take the positives out of this weekend and use it to get better. We’re happy with our effort, and I think we grew as a team big time this weekend. This group can really go somewhere, and our performance in the first four games has shown that.”
Beaney echoed his player’s remarks.
“Playing back-to-back nationally ranked teams was a huge challenge,” said Beaney. “The only way I could be happier is if we had won the game versus Norwich. Even after the game was tied at four, we had three good chances to score. One bounce of the puck and we could have won it. We will come out of this with a much better understanding of what to do to close games out like that.”
The previous weekend against Colby and Bowdoin, one of the biggest stories in the successful NESCAC contests was the emergence of a crop of first-year talent. Silcoff, Neugold and Riley Dickie ’16 all have three points or more after four games.
The form of the team’s younger players encourages both Beaney and Brown.
“I think that we all knew a huge part of our success this year would be dependent on how quickly the younger guys were able to step in and play a role, and the first two weekends have shown that they had no problem doing so,” said Brown. “They’ve been putting pucks in the net up front, and logging some heavy minutes in the back as well. Having four lines that the whole team really trusts out there in any situation is a huge advantage for us.”
“We generally don’t want first-years playing pivotal roles,” added Beaney. “However, these guys have stepped up in even strength, penalty-kill and power play, and when you can get point production it’s a bonus. The first-years have a lot to do with creating the competitive attitude that permeates the team right now.”
Middlebury opens its home schedule against Connecticut College and Tufts this weekend, Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, at 7 p.m. and 4 p.m., respectively, in front of what will be a raucous Kenyon Arena.
“I think this week will be interesting, how we practice and how we prepare,” said Beaney. “We need to be excited to play at home in the NESCAC.”