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Tiger boys’ hockey tops Northfield to advance to final

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury Union High School boys’ hockey team is heading to the Division II final, and the top-seeded, 17-5 Tigers are going there as winners of 15 of their past 16 games and owners of a 16-1 record against D-II competition.
Their 17th win came in Saturday’s semifinal against No. 5 Northfield, 2-0, and it avenged their only D-II setback, 4-2 at home in December.
Senior defender and co-captain Jordan Stearns said the Tigers remembered that loss to the 15-7 Marauders heading into Saturday.
“I know all the guys were fired up because the last time we played them they embarrassed us here, and we were not happy about that, and we were glad to come out and beat them,” said Stearns, who picked up a goal and an assist in the win. “And to shut them out was awesome.”
The Tigers will meet No. 2 Stowe (17-4-1) on Thursday at 6 p.m. at the University of Vermont’s Gutterson Field House. The game will be broadcast on WVTK-FM 92.1. The Tigers and Raiders met in Middlebury on Jan. 31, with MUHS prevailing, 3-2. It will also be a rematch of the 2011 D-II final, won by MUHS in overtime. The Tigers will be trying for the program’s third title.
To reach the final, the Tigers had to get past Northfield, a task that meant defending all-star forward Jackson Tucker. Senior forwards Rio McCarty and Nick Audet took turns shadowing Tucker on Saturday, and Coach Derek Bartlett said he made sure Stearns was also on the ice against Tucker. He said all three did their jobs well.  
“Our plan was to keep No. 14 (Tucker) off the board tonight, and we did,” Bartlett said.  
On top of that, the Tigers allowed only seven shots on goalie Sawyer Ryan, who came up big on second-period bids from the slot from Marauders Ben Cole and Joe Parento. But otherwise defenders Stearns, Andrew Gleason, Nathan Lalonde and James Ploof protected their goalie well.
“Defense wins championships, and we really take pride in our play in the D zone,” Bartlett said.
Stearns said it started with McCarty and Audet on Tucker, and then putting the clamps on the rest of the Marauders.
“They create a lot of offense, especially with Tucker out there. But we shadowed him and shut him down,” Stearns said. “Time and space was the big thing. Not allowing them the time and space really helped, and I know everyone gave their all.”
After early chances by the Tigers’ Justin Stone and Gleason, Northfield went on a power play 4:21 into the first. Northfield’s Lucas Eldred missed wide, Ryan (seven saves) alertly scooped a loose puck, and McCarty cleared to kill the penalty.
At 8:56, Stearns gave the Tigers the lead. Northfield jammed up Devin Dwire trying to clear near on the left side, but Stearns picked up the loose puck and took advantage of a clear path to skate into the Northfield zone. A couple strides in, he swerved right and whipped the puck back into the lower left corner.
“I just saw the open ice. I tried earlier to cut in the middle and shoot, but I got mucked up. But this time I got it off and got lucky enough, and got it down in that far corner,” he said.
The Tigers outshot the Marauders, 8-7, in the first period, and Northfield had a 6-4 edge in the second, when Ryan twice had to be at his best.
But the Tigers got their second goal 2:50 in on a power play. Stearns sent Stone in down the left side, and Stone’s shot broke into the goal off Northfield netminder Riley Corey’s pads.
Shortly afterward, Corey (13 saves) made a sliding pad save on Dwire. At the six-minute mark, a Stone goal set up by Gleason was disallowed when the officials ruled he used a kicking motion that some observers found difficult to detect. Later in the period, Northfield earned a power play, and Ryan stopped Tucker from the right-wing circle.
In the third period, the Tigers allowed just one more shot, on that Ryan turned aside routinely. Lalonde and Stearns each blocked shots on a late Northfield power play, and soon afterward the Tigers and a huge standing-room-only crowd were celebrating.
On Wednesday, the Tigers needed a pair of third-period goals to survive a quarterfinal challenge from No. 9 U-32, 4-2. Keenan Bartlett netted the game-winner at 5:10 of the third and later set up Dwire’s pad goal. U-32 took the lead early in the first, and Lalonde tied the score later in the period. U-32 struck early in the second, but Dwire equalized at 7:52, from Audet and Stearns. Ryan made 15 stops, while David Woolaver stopped 11 shots for the 8-14 Raiders.
But after Saturday’s solid effort, the Tigers can look forward to the rematch with Stowe. Stearns said they would be confident, but know they have to be ready.  
“I think we’re going in expecting to work hard. We’ve got to play 45 minutes,” Stearns said.
Stearns said the team’s togetherness — which he believes has been enhanced by the choice of most Tigers to bleach their hair blond — should help them.
“We’ve really bonded as a team. At the beginning of the year we had to get through some adversity, and we came through with our heads high,” Stearns said. “We had a little bit of penalty trouble, a little intensity, the chemistry wasn’t the greatest. But you know what, we made it through that, and I think that brought us even closer.”
Bartlett will have a lot at stake this week: His daughter will play with the MUHS girls for the title on Wednesday, and Keenan is his son. He has coached both for years.
“It’s exciting. I don’t know if my heart can take much more,” Bartlett said. “I’m so happy for them and for all the kids.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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