SUPERIOR, Wis. — Heading into the championship game, the Middlebury Panthers had won 24 consecutive playoff games, and three straight national titles. The last time the Panthers were beaten in postseason play was in the 2003 NCAA semifinals, by none other than the Oswego State Lakers.
Middlebury’s streak is now over as the Lakers have struck again, this time earning their first ever Division III national championship, defeating Middlebury 4-3 on Garren Reisweber’s overtime goal at Wessman Arena.
The first ten minutes of the game saw the Panthers dominate puck possession, but unable to beat Laker junior goaltender Ryan Scott. Oswego penalties at the 8:59 and 16:30 gave Middlebury two chances with a man advantage, but despite holding the zone for a majority of the time, were once again unable to beat Scott. In all, Scott turned away 19 shots in the opening frame. Middlebury junior Ross Cherry would stop all six shots he faced in the period and it would end 0-0.
The shot disparity came as a little bit of a surprise to Oswego head coach Ed Gosek.
“We’ve prided ourselves this year on being a quick and fast team. After playing these guys, I’m not so sure where we stand on that anymore,” he said.
A late first period penalty on Middlebury would carry over into the second, and it would take the Lakers only 33 seconds to capitalize on the power play. Freshman forward Peter Magagna was able to break out of his own zone, skate through the entire Panther defense and get a point blank shot off on Cherry, who deflected it over the goal. Magagna regained possession and with the Middlebury defense still trying to regroup, found sophomore forward Garren Reisweber who beat Cherry to put Oswego up 1-0.
It didn’t take too long for Middlebury to strike back, as at the 8:42 mark confusion at the Oswego blue line led to Panther sophomore forward Jamie McKenna breaking free down the right side, where he wrapped a wrist shot around a Laker defenseman and Scott to even things up 1-1.
Less than a minute later, the Lakers would receive two penalties on the same play, giving the Panthers a 5×3 advantage for a full two minutes. Middlebury would waste no time in taking a 2-1 lead, as thirteen seconds later and 9:54 into the period, senior forward John Sales would beat Scott with a slap shot from the right point.
“Sometimes there just isn’t much you can do,” said Scott. “They put some shots in through traffic, and the five on three goal was just a beautiful goal. I thought I had been playing the way I wanted to up to that point, so I didn’t let it bother me too much. Sometimes it’s just ‘what are you going to do?’”
As was the case in the first period, Middlebury was often able to hold the puck in the Oswego zone for long stretches. When the Lakers’ got bogged down, it was often their fourth line of Derrell Levy, Trevor Gilligan and Mark Lozzi who would provide a needed spark and their efforts finally paid off at the 16:12 mark of the period, as a centering pass from Lozzi would find Gilligan’s stick and then the back of the net to tie the game 2-2.
“As the home team we have the last change, and every time I put those guys out there he put out (their top) line so I was mad at myself for that,” said Gosek. “They got out there though, got us a goal, provided us with some energy, and played well defensively.”
He added, “I was proud of the way all our guys played, especially those guys.”
The way the weekend had gone, it was no surprise the second period ended in a 2-2 deadlock, despite Middlebury holding a 30-12 shot advantage.
“They were able to control action for long stretches, but I think we did a good job of not allowing quality chances and keeping things to the outside,” said Gosek.
The third period would tell the same story the previous two had, with Middlebury controlling for significant stretches and Oswego creating quality scoring chances largely in transition. As was the case in the second period, however, it would be the Lakers who would strike first.
A Middlebury penalty early in the period would lead to the Oswego’s second powerplay goal of the contest, as Magagna would beat Cherry high to put the Lakers in front 3-2 at the 5:33 mark.
As an eight-time champion, Middlebury wasn’t about to lay down, and would continue to challenge Scott and the Oswego defense as the period wore on. Some big-time saves from Cherry would keep it a one-goal game, biding enough time for Panther freshman forward John Sullivan to get one by Scott to tie it 3-3 with only 2:25 remaining.
“There wasn’t much special about it,” said Middlebury junior captain Mickey Gilchrist. “We were able to hold it in the zone for a while, and John was just able to find a way to put it in.”
With neither team finding a way to ice the game winner in the closing minutes, the national championship trophy would have to wait to be awarded, as in fitting fashion, sudden-death overtime would be required.
Things could have ended quickly as the game’s storyline refused to change. Once again it was Middlebury sustaining pressure and generating chances and Oswego countering with transition opportunities of its own.
What looked like it could have gone on all night finally came to an end, however, as the Lakers would finally connect in transition.
Senior defenseman Ryan Koresky made something out of nothing by chipping the puck along the sideboards to Reisweber, who was waiting at the Middlebury blue line along with a Panther defender. One way or another, Reisweber beat the defense and ended up all-alone with Cherry, freezing him with a fake long enough to pull the puck far side and slide it in. 4-3 Lakers.
The celebration was on.
“I kind of blacked out there,” said Reisweber. “I got a leg up on the back-checker, tried to keep my feet moving and had a wide open net once I made the move.”
“I was really dragging the few shifts before that, it was all adrenaline I guess. You have to give Ryan Koresky a ton of credit for making a great play to get that started.”
“I knew it was going in,” said Laker senior captain Ryan Woodward. “I’ve seen Garren do that a few times this season, and he does it all the time in practice. When I saw the goalie come out, I just knew it was over.”
The goal handed Middlebury its first loss in nine trips to the title game, but does little to tarnish its impeccable tradition.
“I was pleased with our efforts from the start right through to the end,” said Middlebury head coach Bill Beaney. “They got one more than us but aside from that I thought we played well.”
“We had our chances to score and didn’t put it away. I don’t think anyone who was involved can feel bad about this hockey game.”
Middlebury’s efforts were stifled largely due to 47 saves by Scott, a new Division III championship game record.
“A lot of those were from bad angles,” he said. “The rest of the team did a good job of keeping things to the outside and most of the time I had good lines of vision. That wasn’t 47 saves by me, it was 47 saves by our entire team.”
The championship is the first ever for the Oswego Men’s Hockey program, and is also the first in any sport for the University.
“We measure ourselves against teams like Middlebury, St. Norbert and Norwich,” said Gosek. “There is a reason they are here every year, and those are the programs you look at and try to learn from what they are doing.”
Ironically, Middlebury, St. Norbert and Norwich were the three teams Oswego defeated en route to the title.
Gosek continued, “This all goes back to former coaches here. Guys like George Crowe, Herb Hammond, Don Unger and George Roll. They made this program what it is, we are just trying to keep it going.”
For now, things are going pretty well for the Lakers, as following disappointing postseason losses the previous few years, they now stand alone at the pinnacle of the Division III hockey world, a place where Woodward doesn’t mind ending his Laker career.
“Talk about a storybook ending.”