Middlebury-Wentworth: Leopards Try To Overcome Tradition

Wentworth has had a historical season. With a record of 23-5-0, they set a school record for wins. The Leopards had a tough draw in the ECAC Northeast playoffs on the road to taking home the ECACNE crown. It wasn’t easy, and it only gets harder.

For all their success and hard work, the Leopards were rewarded with a first-round NCAA matchup with Middlebury, at Middlebury on Friday and Saturday night. Talk about a tough draw.

The Middlebury Panthers (24-1-1) are the NESCAC champions and an absolute buzzsaw. They haven’t lost a game since Nov. 24. Middlebury has outscored its opponents to the tune of 127-37 and has racked up seven shutouts in the process. Forward Kevin Cooper (26-12–38), defenseman Matt Dunn (12-15–27), defenseman Grayson Fertig (0-11–11), Ryan Constantine (6-14–20) and senior goaltender Christian Carlsson (24-1-1, 1.36 GAA, .925 save percentage) were all cited by assistant coach Neil Sinclair as leaders of the Middlebury squad.

But don’t expect the Panthers to overlook Wentworth. Is it safe to say that, given last January’s 4-4 tie against Wentworth, that Middlebury will not take them lightly?

“Correct,” said Sinclair. “This group has been pretty good about staying focused in terms of them not looking past opponents. We know that they have some pretty talented forwards and some talented goaltenders. We’re going to try and create traffic in front, get [their goalies] moving from left to right and not staying stationary.”

Wentworth coach Bill Bowes knows his troops, led by senior forward Tim Yakimowsky (27-14–41), sophomore goalie Raj Bhangoo (13-4, 2.22 GAA, .934%) and junior goalie Jamie Vanek (8-1, 2.72, .910), have a tough task ahead.

“There’s not a team in the country that performs better in big games than Middlebury,” said Bowes. “They have a tradition of getting it done. In many ways it’s a David and Goliath type of a game. Middlebury is one heckuva team. They’ve got experience, skill, a top goaltender, top coaching … I haven’t been able to find a flaw in their team. But we’re heading up there with the full intention of beating them. I think we can do it.”

But how? Well, it won’t be easy, that’s for sure.

Middlebury has a slew of factors in their favor, including tournament experience (Middlebury is making its eighth consecutive NCAA appearance and it has won the NCAA championship five times), a large and lively crowd in its home arena, a huge home-ice surface, and then there’s the famed Middlebury forecheck.

“I call it the Middlebury forecheck,” said Bowes. “Other teams use a left wing lock or a right wing lock, but that forecheck is unique to them. No one else can run it like they can. They’re the best in the country at doing it. We plan to play tight d-zone coverage — that will be an important part of our game. We have to be patient, wait for our breaks, force mistakes, and capitalize on them when we get them.”

The crowd, as coach Sinclair put it, “is always a factor.” Bowes agrees.

The frenzied crowd will be “an enormous factor. It is a huge advantage for Middlebury and an incredible obstacle for us. We’ve played in front of some similar crowds though. Last year we went to Plattsburgh, and this year we played at RIT in a similar atmosphere. We’ve got to keep our cool and keep our focus on our job.”

According to Bowes, the large Middlebury ice surface could also play a role.

“I think the big ice surface suits our style. I’d rather play on that than in an icebox against a bunch of 6-4 guys. But they’re the best team in the country on that ice surface.”

And what about the daunting tradition? The Middlebury name alone is an intimidating factor.

“There are so many teams with so much tradition, especially Middlebury. We can’t compare ourselves to them. We’re trying to build some tradition — we have been doing that — but wining would help us tremendously. It’s not everything, but we never know when we’re going to be here again. They might be here nine times in the next 10 years. We’re just going to make the best of it. I know our guys will bring their best effort. I like our character, I like our guts, I love our goaltending. If they plan on beating us, they will have to play their best game and it won’t be easy.”

And what about that goaltending? Last year’s game saw Wentworth rotate goaltenders at almost every stoppage of play, stirring things up just enough to knock Middlebury off its game.

“It was a factor,” said Sinclair. “But we are aware of it now and I don’t think it will be a contributing factor.”

Can we expect the same thing in this game? Will Wentworth go with one goaltender and, if so, which one?

“We’re not sure yet. I’m going to sit down with them and talk about it and listen to what they have to say. They give great input.”

One thing is for sure, Middlebury will go with senior goaltender Christian Carlsson in net. Carlsson has had a stellar season and career. He leads the nation with a 1.30 goals against average and has a modern-day Middlebury school record 14 career shutuots. He was named to the All-NESCAC team.

As for the Wentworth rotating goalie gimmick, Bowes wouldn’t tip his hand. “That’s what I love about Division III hockey, there’s a chance for anything and you never know what’s going to happen.”

No, you don’t. Which is why Wentworth has confidence they can win it, and why Middlebury won’t mess with what has worked all season.

“We’ll do the same things we did in preparation for the NESCAC tournament,” said Sinclair.

Bowes knows his team is the underdog and he knows it will take a complete team effort to win the game. No matter the outcome, he will be proud of his team if they bring their best effort to the rink.

“I tell them that it is a privilege to be able to play in the tournament. It’s a tremendous privilege to play college hockey anywhere at any level. And you never know if you’ll be in the tournament again as long as you live. We’ll definitely make the most of it. We aren’t going to rely on one or two guys. Our strength is our team. We have to beat people with hard work, heart, character — when you’ve got everybody going you’ve got a chance. We’re going to have fun and enjoy it. I’ll tell the team to make sure that you can look in the mirror and know that you gave it your best effort. If we can do that, I’ll be happy.”