NORTHFIELD, Vt. — Mike Lukajic’s first-period goal would prove to be the game winner, but weathering seven Middlebury power plays with that one-goal lead was the difference. After staving off the Panthers’ man-up attack, the Lakers opened the floodgates in the third on the way to a 6-0 win.
Oswego started the game with a tough forecheck, and kept the Panthers from getting a shot on goalie Tyson Gajda for the first 7:30 of the contest.
The Lakers’ physical play paid off at 16:06 of the first period. Jocelyn Dubord took a cross-ice pass off the boards from linemate Don Patrick, raced up the left wing and backhanded a drop pass through a Panther’s legs to the trailing Mike Lukajic. Lukajic paused to find his mark and wristed it under Chen’s outstretched left arm.
“It was just a lot of hard work along the boards, taking the puck off the glass,” said Lukajic. “Dubord has been with me all year. He passed it back to me and I just tried to shoot it, hoping for a rebound, and it went in.”
Oswego withstood a flurry of Middlebury chances in the second. Twice, the Panthers couldn’t finish on odd-man rushes over a sprawled Gajda. And Middlebury managed only two shots on two overlapping Oswego penalties, which included 32 seconds of 5-on-3.
Gajda’s defensemen saved the day by clearing the puck each time, according to the junior netminder. “I look for them to help me out in those situations, and they were there for me,” said Gajda, who notched his fourth shutout of the season.
Both coaches agreed that Oswego’s success against the Panther power play was the key to the Laker win.
“I know it was only a one-goal game, but I really thought the momentum swung in our direction after we killed off those power plays going into the third,” said Oswego coach George Roll. “We wanted to go agressive; we didn’t want to give them space, because we knew if we gave them time and space, they’d make us pay.”
“They did a very good job of packing it in around the net,” concurred Middlebury coach Neil Sinclair. “We just had a difficult time trying to put the puck in the net tonight. The puck went through the crease several times in the second period.”
Middlebury captain Robert Chisholm didn’t think that his team’s lack of success on the power play frustrated the Panthers. “You just keep plugging away. I don’t think it got to us. I don’t think we got frustrated. I don’t think we quit. We played 60 minutes tonight, but the puck just didn’t bounce our way.”
Roll took the experience from his last meeting with Middlebury to craft his game plan.
“We really wanted to clog the neutral zone and force them to dump the puck,” said Roll. “We played them [in the quarterfinals] back in ’98 and we learned our lesson back then. You can’t go up and down the ice with them.”
While Oswego took a defensive posture in its own zone, the Lakers pelted the Panther net with 39 shots on goal, nearly twice the Middlebury season average of 21. Eighteen of those Laker shots came in the third period.
Oswego began its five-goal third-period onslaught with some inattentive play by Middlebury goalie Yen-I Chen. Gary Bowman dug the puck off the back of the net and stuffed a quick backhanded wraparound through the netminder’s wide-open pads to give the Lakers a 2-0 lead at 2:50.
Lukajic gave Oswego a 3-0 margin as he chased a bouncing puck to center ice, raced up the right wing, and lifted the puck high over Chen.
“Again, we chipped it high off the glass, which we did well all day, and it was just a footrace to the puck,” said Lukajic, who has a team high 33 goals with the pair in this game.
Just 52 seconds later, Tim Thomas, camped at the right post, banged home a goal-mouth pass from John Hirliman to put the Lakers up 4-0.
Sinclair pulled Chen with 6:15 left in the game, with a faceoff in the Oswego zone. Oswego’s Bowman got an empty-netter at 14:12, dumping it in from center ice, to give the Lakers a 5-0 spot. Marc Scheuer replaced the freshman Chen in net for the rest of the game.
Paul Perrier got the Lakers’ final goal with just over five minutes left, after his shot deflected off a Panther in the crease.
Roll said his team used its physical style of play to wear down Middlebury. “We wanted to lay the body on them all night, and I think in the third period, it just wore them down. … When we play a physical, along-the-wall kind of game, and grind it out, we’re a pretty good team.”
Chisholm was philosophical in the loss: “It came down to a game of opportunities. They buried theirs and we didn’t bury ours at the right time.”
Oswego advances to the championship game Saturday night to face the winner of the St. Norbert/Norwich semifinal.