Having won three straight NESCAC titles and six of the past seven, the Middlebury Panthers have certainly earned their billing as the most feared men’s hockey team in the conference.
Add the return of 20 players to their past success, and no one would have bet against Middlebury to repeat as champions this season.
But the Panthers, slowed by injuries, illnesses and an inexplicably stymied offense, have not shown the dominant form that has characterized recent years. Rounding out the regular season with a mark of 14-7-3, Middlebury suffered its most losses since the 1993-94 squad lost 10 games. On Jan. 12-13, the Panthers lost two games in a row for the first time in nearly two years.
As Middlebury struggled its way to the NESCAC’s second-best record, the door opened for other teams hoping to show the collegiate hockey world that the conference runs much deeper than just the Panthers. For these squads, the ultimate test will come when the puck drops on the 2007 NESCAC Tournament Saturday, as several will vie to become the first team other than Middlebury to win the conference title since 2003.
Among those with the greatest chance to dethrone the Panthers will be Bowdoin, which enters the tournament as a No. 1 seed for the first time in program history. The Polar Bears have qualified for the NESCAC Tournament every year since its inception in 2000 but have failed to bring a championship back to Brunswick. This year, however, they will have the advantage of hosting all the tournament’s games on their home ice, where they are unbeaten this season. Amongst Bowdoin’s wins at Dayton Arena was a 6-2 drubbing of Middlebury on Jan. 13, the Panthers’ most lopsided defeat since 2003.
“It’s certainly a confidence boost when you are successful against an opponent you have a tremendous amount of respect for,” Bowdoin coach Terry Meagher said. “The thing that was more important to us was that even though we play really well, goal scoring doesn’t come easy to us. We scored six goals in that game.”
Another team that can prove itself this weekend is sixth-seeded Conn. College, which will be making its first appearance in the NESCAC Tournament after winning a program-best 10 games during the regular season. Just by getting to this point, the Camels have exceeded all expectations, as United States College Hockey Online (USCHO) picked them to finish at the bottom of the NESCAC standings this season. The team, however, never doubted that the accomplishment was in its reach.
“Our goal all year was to get into the playoffs,” Camels coach Jim Ward said. “Once we got into the playoffs, we wanted to take it as far as we can. We really haven’t diverted from how we’ve approached the season, which is one game at a time. We’ve talked about that from day one, to approach each game as a separate entity and then build upon that, breaking it down by period or by shift. We’re thrilled to be here.”
The development of teams such as Conn. College and No. 4-seeded Wesleyan, which will host a game in the NESCAC Tournament for the first time in its history, will make the Panthers’ quest for a fourth-straight conference title all the more difficult.
“I think that Middlebury is always going to be a strong team and is going to be a contender every single year,” Ward said. “What we want to do as the other coaches in the league is bring up the bottom, which is what Conn. and Wesleyan have done now, and create opportunities where we push Middlebury every year.”
“I think this league is as respected as any league in the country and as deep as any league in the country,” Meagher added. “Any of the eight teams can win the championship this year. That’s more remarkable than anything.”
Still, no one has lost sight of the fact that the Panthers are the team to beat coming into the tournament. Middlebury ended the season as the conference’s hottest team, going 7-2-1 in its last 10 games, and its proven track record makes it a formidable opponent.
“They’re a tournament-proven team,” said Williams coach William Kangas, whose seventh-seeded Ephs will take on the Panthers in the first round. “Most of the kids from last year’s team are back, and I expect them to be at their best. They just picked up two big road wins at Amherst and Hamilton. They’re the defending champions, and it’s their championship until someone else knocks them off.”