MIDDLEBURY, Vt. — For the third consecutive year and the seventh time in ten seasons, Middlebury will move onto the NCAA semifinals. For the second time in three years, the Panthers had to defeat Wentworth to advance, as the Panthers skated to a 9-1 victory behind three Kevin Cooper goals.
The dynamic duo of seniors Cooper and Adam Foote combined for eight points on the evening for what could be their last home game of their careers.
“They’ve been fabulous; two of our go-to guys this year, and for four years,” said Middlebury coach Bill Beaney of the tandem.
The two seniors hooked up for the first time with 2:34 remaining in the first period. Foote sprung Cooper for a breakaway, as he has done so many times this year. Cooper’s initial shot was saved by Wentworth goaltender Raj Bhangoo (10-8-2), but Cooper recovered for a second attempt that trickled into the goal to give the Panthers a 3-0 lead.
“We have really good chemistry together. Kevin makes it real easy for me. It seems as if every time I look up he’s exactly where he needs to be,” said Foote.
Foote and Cooper teamed up once again this time helping Brian Phinney get his 12th of the season. Cooper fed Phinney who fired a wrist shot over Bryce McFadden, who replaced Bhangoo at the start of the third period, to give the Panthers a 7-0 lead 2:02 into the third period.
The Leopards were granted a spot in the NCAA tournament this year because of their win in the ECAC Northeast Championship game over Curry. Despite their win, Wentworth finished the season 16-8-4 and not ranked in the top 15 in the east according to the latest NCAA rankings. The Leopards were clearly outmatched right from the start of the game.
“I was thrilled with the way this group came together,” said Beaney. “It was too bad for Wentworth. I think they were caught a little shorthanded not being able to stay with us in the big rink.”
Middlebury tallied 52 shots to Wentworth’s 18, including a 24-8 shots discrepancy in the first period.
“We came out really slow. We were a little intimidated by the Middlebury mystique. I thought we could have played better,” said Leopards’ head coach Jon Deptula.
The Panthers started off quickly scoring 45 seconds into the game. Sophomore defenseman Jeff Smith fed freshman forward Evgeny Saidachev who fired a shot through Bangoo’s legs for his tenth goal of the season.
Play evened out after Wentworth’s junior forward Shawn Metheral went down after apparently injuring his shoulder from a hit by Phinney. Metheral skated off with help from his teammates, but did not return.
Despite the even play, the Panthers, as they have been doing recently, scored a couple of goals quickly. Darwin Hunt picked up a loose puck behind the Wentworth net and faked Bhangoo to one side and scored on a backhand wrap-around to give the Panthers 2-0 lead.
Just a 1:35 later Middlebury struck again. Cooper skated up the right-wing side and fed Foote who came streaking down the left-wing side, and fired a wrist shot over the sprawling Bhangoo to give the Panthers a 3-0 lead going into the first intermission.
“Our first periods have been our best periods. We never used to be a first-period team, but now we’re making it a priority,” said Cooper.
Cooper capped off his hat trick with 7:43 remaining in the third period on the power play. Cooper picked up a loose puck on the right-wing circle and fired a wrist shot to the blocker side of McFadden to give the Panthers an 8-1 lead.
With his five points, Cooper has amassed 55 points on the season moving ahead of the nation’s former leading scorer, Kurtis McLean of Norwich.
Middlebury was consistent tonight, scoring three goals in each period, and only giving up one, late in the final frame.
“It’s nice to see the offense finishing,” said Beaney. “We haven’t always done that. We always seem to get a number of shots, but didn’t always finish, but we’re finishing now and that’s exciting.”
The Panthers offense is currently ranked 6th in the country scoring 5.19 goals per game.
The only hiccup of the night for Middlebury occurred while Wentworth was on the power play in the third period. Wentworth captain Brad Carpenter skated in two-on-one with defenseman Blayne Goodman. Carpenter’s initial shot was blocked, but skirted free to Goodman who lifted it over the sprawling Marc Scheuer, (15-2) who made 17 saves in the winning effort.
The Panthers have now won six games in a row and 16 of their last 17 games including wins over two other NCAA semifinalists, Norwich and Plattsburgh.
“No question we’re playing the best hockey of the season. I think the last three weeks we’ve played the best hockey of the year,” said Beaney.
Following the game, Middlebury’s seniors took one last lap around the rink waving to the fans. This was most likely the Panthers’ last home game of the season: Middlebury’s women’s team will most likely host the NCAA championship next weekend, the same time as the men’s championship. It has been determined that both tournaments cannot be held at the same venue due to lack of ice availability for practice time. The announcement of the championship venue will be made on Monday.
“It was a great feeling of pride to see that senior group skate around the rink for the last time. I was so thrilled to see the way the fans reacted to them. It’s been a love affair with the fans since they got here three years ago. They’re going to be sorely missed, and I hope to enjoy them for as long as we can,” said Beaney.
Beaney will have his seniors for at least one more game as the Panthers move onto the semifinals to take on their in-state archrival, Norwich. The Cadets and Panthers have met once this season, with Middlebury skating away with a 6-2 win behind a Cooper hat trick.
“Norwich is a good team. I’m glad we’re playing them. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a good game. It’s what we wanted, and what we were hoping for,” said Cooper.