Quarterfinal Preview: Elmira at Middlebury

Team unity is an important ingredient to success in the game of hockey, particularly college hockey. Twenty-some guys have to learn to live together on the bus and in hotel rooms during long road trips. They must have that competitive fire to battle as a group through the adversity and setbacks that are inevitable during a long, grueling season. And they must be willing to support each other during the good times and bad.

Failure to build that spirit usually leads to a team self-destructing. Every coach tries to build a united team, and success at that endeavor provides a basic ingredient for success.

Both Elmira and Middlebury have been very successful at that cohesion this season, and their coaches point to that trait as the reason why each of them made it to the NCAA quarterfinals.

“It seems like this team is the closest team that I have been around since I have been here,” said Elmira coach Tim Ceglarski. “They are always around together, they are always having fun. The younger guys have gotten folded into the loop with the upperclassmen very quickly. When they are walking around campus, they are walking around as 26 guys together.

“I think that carries over onto the ice, and was especially noticeable during the third period of both of [the ECAC West playoff] games this past weekend. Guys were backing each other up and guys were supporting each other and it came together as a great team effort. If being close and having great chemistry in the locker room is important, that might be the one thing that separates this group.”

That spirit is just as noticeable among the Middlebury Panthers.

“I think it is the sense that the kids have really come together as a group,” said Middlebury coach Neil Sinclair. “They are a very close group and spend a lot of time together. Their best friends are on the hockey team, and I think that is the trait that coach [Bill] Beaney has instilled into the program over the years. It is very strong within this team and has helped them achieve what they have.”

Middlebury and Elmira haven’t met on the ice since the 1998-1999 season, when Middlebury defeated Elmira 2-1. The only other meeting between these two teams was in the finals of the ECAC tournament in 1977-1978, when Elmira defeated Middlebury 6-3 to advance into the NCAAs.

Elmira returns to the NCAA playoffs for the first time since the 1996-1997 season. That year, the Soaring Eagles lost a two-game quarterfinal series to St. John’s. It has been a long time coming, but getting back to the NCAAs is an important accomplishment for Elmira.

“It’s especially important because we have had such good teams over the last few years that have been maybe a couple of ingredients short of making it,” said Ceglarski. “I really have to give a lot of credit to our class of seniors. They have endured some hardship over the last couple of years, being very close with leagues coming down to one second here or there.”

Middlebury, on the other hand, is no stranger to the NCAA postseason. The Panthers have made the tournament every year since 1994-1995, including five straight titles. That record has established a well-earned reputation.

“Obviously, everyone knows the history of the Middlebury program,” said Ceglarski. “That is one of the things that we are going to have to get out of our guys’ minds right off the bat. This isn’t the team that won five national championships in a row. This is a different team.

“We know they have Kevin Cooper, who is one of the best forwards in the country. And we know that they give up very few shots on net. So they are obviously pretty well disciplined in their own zone, and we are going to have to try to fight through the stuff in the offensive zone.”

Middlebury began the season looking a little more vulnerable than usual. Sinclair is serving as interim head coach this year after Beaney took a year off to watch his son’s senior season at Princeton. Add to that a very young team, including seven freshmen, six sophomores, and only four seniors, and it is understandable why the Panthers got off to a 3-3 start.

“We have a real young team, and a lot of it was kids getting used to new roles,” said Sinclair. “We have a very small senior class. We had juniors and sophomores that needed to step into leadership roles. A lot of it was kids having to sort through things and figure out what their roles were.”

Middlebury quickly got things figured out, and went on to rip off 20 straight without a loss. But despite limiting Trinity to only 17 shots in the NESCAC championship, Middlebury lost the contest last Sunday to the Bantams, 4-2.

Some might expect a loss right before the NCAA playoffs to put a damper on the Panthers. But Sinclair thinks it is the opposite.

“I think [the loss] will help us,” said Sinclair. “It gets the kids focused on what we haven’t been doing well the last couple of games. And it will give them a renewed sense of urgency in the sense of what they want to accomplish. They were not going to go undefeated after Christmas. They have had their loss, and now they can get refocused and not have the weight of that to struggle under.”

Middlebury has the weight of NCAA playoff experience and home ice on its side for Saturday’s quarterfinal. But the victor will most likely be the team that plays best as a team.

Elmira and Middlebury will meet at 7 p.m. on Saturday at Middlebury’s Kenyon Arena.