SUPERIOR, Wis. — The opening semifinal between Oswego and St. Norbert might have been a tough act to follow, but the nightcap between the Middlebury Panthers and Manhattanville Valiants did everything it could to match the pace of the opener. When all was said and done, it was Middlebury skating away with a 3-2 victory. As a result, the Panthers will face Oswego State in Sunday’s national championship game, where they will be seeking their fourth consecutive title and ninth in the past twelve years.
The opening period would belong to the goaltenders, as both Andrew Gallant of Manhattanville and Doug Raeder of Middlebury would turn away numerous opportunities. The best opportunity of the period belonged to Manhattanville’s Dylon Henningson, whose persistent forechecking efforts would to force a turnover that resulted in a breakaway opportunity for himself. His efforts would draw a penalty on Middlebury’s Scott Bartlett, but Raeder would turn away the initial breakaway shot as well as Manhattanville’s efforts with the man advantage.
Overall, the up-tempo period would feature a multitude of quality chances for both sides, but Raeder and Gallant would turn away everything they saw and the period would end 0-0, with Manhattanville holding a 12-9 shot advantage.
“I think that was just vintage NCAA Division III semifinal hockey,” said Middlebury head coach Bill Beaney. “You saw great chances at both ends and there were times we couldn’t get out of our end and vice versa, and that’s what you look for in a hockey game at this particular level.”
The Valiants carried 1:22 of powerplay time into the second period, but they would not be the ones to capitalize on it. Instead, it would be Middlebury forward Mickey Gilchrist, who forced a turnover and beat Gallant on a shorthanded breakaway to put the Panthers out front 1-0 at the 0:26 mark.
The Panthers would kill off another penalty before a Manhattanville penalty at the 4:46 mark gave Middlebury a golden opportunity to extend its lead. Once again, however, it would be the shorthanded team that would capitalize. A Middlebury neutral zone turnover would lead to a Manhattanville two-on-one, and forward Justin Rohr would keep it himself, beating Raeder high with a wrister from the left side to tie it 1-1.
Manhattanville would carry play for most of the period, and they would strike again at the 17:40 mark. Amazingly, it would once again be shorthanded, and it would again be Rohr. Initially it appeared as if the Valiants shorthanded rush had been thwarted, as Rohr was played off the puck and was on his way to the ice. On his way down, however, he managed to take a swing at the puck and hit it into an open spot just past an outstretched Raeder. The games third consecutive shorthanded goal put the Valiants out front 2-1.
“The second period has been a problem for us lately,” said Manhattanville head coach Keith Levinthal. “I don’t think it was today though. There were times I thought we might have had them on the ropes there. We really were able to generate some good scoring chances.”
The Valiants had peppered Raeder with 26 shots through the opening two periods, a solid accomplishment considering the Panthers were only allowing 23.1 per game on the season. Raeder finished the game with 34 saves, a career-best.
What had been a fantastic period for Manhattanville lost a little bit of its luster as the Panthers would tie the game at the 19:40 mark as forward Jamie McKenna finish off a two-on-one break to tie it 2-2.
“You know, that late goal really hurt, but I still liked our position heading into the third period,” said Levinthal.
Though Manhattanville was certainly getting its share of chances, it would be Middlebury who would strike early in the third. With Middlebury crashing the Valiant’s net, Gallant was able to come up with two fantastic saves, but not a third, as Panther forward Evgeny Saidachev would put home the second rebound to make it 3-2 Panthers at the 1:29 mark.
Though no one knew it at the time, the goal would prove to be the game winner. Both sides saw plenty of scoring chances throughout the period, but in true dramatic fashion, Manhattanville’s best chance to tie things up may have been its last.
With Gallant pulled, a Panther penalty at the 19:01 mark would give the Valiants nearly a full minute with a 6×4 advantage. Though they threatened numerous times, Manhattanville’s best look came in the final ten seconds, but Raeder again came up huge, gloving down a quick wrist shot from the low slot to preserve the win.
“I was very pleased with the grit our guys showed,” said Beaney. I thought we came out very sluggish in the first period, played better in the second, and thought the third was our best period.”
Though the loss was frustrating for Levinthal, he came away pleased with his team’s performance.
“Obviously we are disappointed in the outcome,” he said. “They are a difficult team to play against, especially the first time you play them. I thought we handled it really well, but you get to the Frozen Four and every team is really good and every game is tight. A bounce here or a bounce there can win you the game.”
The game marks only the third time this season Manhattanville was held to two goals or less. Gallant finished with 31 saves for the Valiants, who finish the season at 21-2-5.
Middlebury moves to 20-7-3 on the year, and once again finds itself playing for the national title.