Panthers peaking at right time to take on upstart UMass-Dartmouth
In looking at this Saturday’s match-up between Middlebury and UMass-Dartmouth, Middlebury coach Bill Beaney is confident that his Panthers are playing their best hockey of the year right now. Following their dominating performances against conference rivals Wesleyan, Hamilton and Bowdoin in the NESCAC tournament, Middlebury is back to defend their national title starting this week at home.
“We are healthy right now and playing with a lot of enthusiasm,” said Beaney. “Success at this point in the season is really about goaltending, playing strong defense and a commitment by the players to work hard for each other. It also helps to have one or two guys that can kick one in the net for you.”
One of the “go-to” guys up front is sophomore Mickey Gilchrist who leads the team in scoring with (23-24-47) in 27 games played this season. Among his 23 goals are nine power play goals and five game winners.
“Mickey takes a little while to get started and I am not sure why,” said Beaney. “He has a pretty good cast around him and he makes big plays like he did on this past weekend.”
The other hallmark of successful Middlebury teams has been the excellent goaltending they have received in tournaments. Last year’s goaltending star Ross Cherry (12-1-1 – 1.43GAA -.928SP) is in good form and posted all three wins in the NESCAC tournament. Don’t be surprised, however, if freshman Doug Raeder (9-1-1 – 1.73GAA – .926SP) sees some action during the tournament.
“We are really going week to week on goaltenders,” said Beaney. “We have total confidence in both of our guys and last week was just a decision to stay with Ross. We could easily have Doug play this weekend and we are playing it by ear right now. It’s really a good problem to have.”
Despite all the success this season, the current number one team in the country has had this year; their coach is pleasantly surprised about their opportunity to compete again on a national stage. “I am a little surprised where we are as a team,” stated Beaney. “We have lost some key guys over the past two years and have had their roles filled by young players. They have had some bad periods but overall have elevated their play to meet the challenges of the season. It’s great to be in the tournament and win or lose it has been a great season.”
Middlebury’s opponent, UMass-Dartmouth, showed in Wednesday’s preliminary round game that it has moved beyond the “just glad to be here” stage by thumping host Geneseo 8-2.
“We’re in virgin territory,” said Corsairs coach Jon Rolli, making his first NCAA appearance in his 22nd season behind the bench at UMD. “We’re playing very well right now. We’re playing within ourselves, which is something we’ve done all season long.”
The Corsairs are the first ECAC Northeast team to win an NCAA tournament game and they’d like to do it again on Saturday. UMass-Dartmouth has won 21 games in a row going into their showdown with the top seeded Panthers.
“The first period’s going to be the most important period of the season for the third night in a row,” said Rolli. “Let’s just go out there and see what we can do. That’s what our opportunity is in this tournament. Certainly we didn’t expect the score [against Geneseo], but we expected to give them a game.”
Corsairs goaltender Jon Burek knows what his role has to be.
“I’ve got to stop the puck,” said Burek, who leads the nation in save percentage (.943) and is second in GAA (1.67). “Keep them out of the net in the first period, and give our team time to adjust and get it done.”
“Our league doesn’t get a lot of attention, but we’re definitely improving,” said junior forward Kyle McCollough, who leads the team in scoring with 45 points. “The Top four teams can play with anybody.”
“I haven’t seen John’s [Rolli] team play this year but obviously they are very talented having won their league and the streak that they are on,” Beaney said. “I would expect a tough game from anyone at this point of the season and we are excited about playing.”
Don’t look for Middlebury to change their play much for the opponent, especially on the big sheet of ice at home. The bigger rink will give them the chance to leverage their speed and complete system for disrupting the opponent. Knowing that this Saturday is the last home game is a good thing for the Panthers, according to Coach Beaney.
“You would think that since we won the championship last year on our home ice in rather convincing fashion that we would be more excited about playing it here again,” noted Beaney. “It really doesn’t matter if it’s Norwich, Plattsburgh or Elmira, there are definite advantages to getting on a bus and going to play somewhere else. I am actually looking forward to that if we can get through Saturday night. It eliminates a whole lot of different distractions and keeps everything kind of focused on just the hockey.”
One thing’s for sure-there will be a lot of experience behind both benches. Rolli (22 years) and Beaney (26) have combined for a total of 905 career wins.
“We’re just going to let it rip and see what happens,” said Rolli.
“You never know.”