Frozen Four Semifinal Preview: Norwich vs. Middlebury

An old rivalry will be renewed in the semifinals of the Division III tournament. The rivalry between [nl]Vermont schools Norwich and Middlebury goes back many years, but has heated up recently as both teams came to national prominence in the mid-’90s. The teams split their two regular season games this year.

“It’s a great rivalry with Norwich,” said Middlebury assistant coach Neil Sinclair. “The guys on both teams respect each other, which makes it a great rivalry. The fans should see some terrific Division III hockey. If it is anything like the game broadcast by NESN [earlier in the season], it should be up and down with a lot of action. Both goaltenders will be asked to make some great saves.”

“I’m looking forward to this weekend,” said Norwich coach Mike McShane. “Our kids have been playing very well the last month or so, and it should be a great game with Middlebury.”

Middlebury Panthers (26-1-1)

The Panthers have the longest winning streak in Division III men’s ice hockey this season, currently standing at 23-0-1. The last time Middlebury lost, and the only Panther loss of the season, was way back on November 24 in the Primelink Great Northern Shootout championship game.

The only team to blemish Middlebury’s record? Norwich, by a 5-1 score.

Since that early stumble, the Panthers have steadily been winning games with solid defense and strong goaltending, and climbing the ladder to the No. 1 ranking in the poll. Except for that game against Norwich, no other team has scored more than three goals against Middlebury all season. The Panthers have also earned eight shutouts.

“We’re a puck-control team,” said Sinclair. “We try to score off the rush. We rely on creating pressure off the forecheck and rotating the pressure down low.”

Christian Carlsson, a senior goaltender and first team All-NESCAC honoree, anchors Middlebury in net. Carlsson has amassed impressive statistics this season, including a .926 save percentage and a 1.29 goals against average.

Offensively, sophomore Kevin Cooper (28-13-41) leads the Panthers with six game-winning goals. Cooper also is tied for the lead in goals per game in the national statistics.

Middlebury advanced to the Frozen Four with a two-game semifinal series win over Wentworth. Both games were tight in the first period, but Wentworth couldn’t keep the Middlebury offense contained for long as the Panthers coasted to the victories. Carlsson didn’t face a lot of shots, but he did stop 19 of the 20 that sneaked past the stingy Middlebury defense.

“[The series] gave the guys confidence,” said Sinclair. “We had people scoring goals who have had difficulty putting the puck in the net. It got them going. It gave confidence to guys on the power play, and we were able to work on moving the puck around in the neutral zone.”

Norwich Cadets (26-4)

Youth has been the keyword at Norwich this season. That youth, both on the scoreboard and in goal, has carried the team all the way to the Frozen Four. Three of the top five scorers on the team are freshmen — and the other two are sophomores.

Freshmen Kurtis McLean (27-21-48) and Vadim Beliaev (14-28-42) occupy the top two spots on Norwich’s scoresheet. McLean is ranked fourth in the nation in points per game by a rookie, and also monopolized the ECAC East All-Star awards by taking home both the ECAC East Player of the Year and ECAC East Rookie of the Year honors.

Add to that mix a freshman goalie who has started 20 games with a 16-4 record. Kevin Schieve has been the young star in net for the Cadets this year. Schieve has tallied a .932 save percentage and a 1.50 goals against average.

Norwich won the national championship two years ago. Last year was a little bit of a rebuilding year, in which the Cadets lost to New England College in the ECAC East championship, and missed earning a bid to the NCAAs. However, the downturn in fortunes was both shallow in depth and short in duration, and it is remarkable that McShane has gotten his team back to the big show so quickly.

It is even harder to believe how young Norwich is when you look at the results of its close games this year. The Cadets have been involved in five overtime games, and have a 4-1 record, including a double overtime thriller of a victory against Plattsburgh in the opening round of the Primelink Tournament. Norwich’s youth grew in to seasoned veterans awfully fast this year

Norwich was as high as No. 1 in the poll midseason, but ended up No. 3 in the season-ending poll, behind Middlebury and RIT.

In the NCAA quarterfinals, Norwich kept Bowdoin scoreless the entire weekend in 3-0 and 7-0 victories. The Cadets enjoyed a narrow 1-0 lead for most of the first game before scoring twice late in the third period to sock the victory away. The second game wasn’t as close as Norwich scored four times in the first period on its way to the series sweep. Schieve stopped all 66 shots that he faced in the series, before being replaced late in the third period of the second game by senior Ziga Ivanic.

The NCAA Semifinals

Middlebury and Norwich meet in the NCAA Frozen Four semis at 7 p.m. Friday at Middlebury’s Kenyon Arena.