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Young Panther men’s hockey team finds that wins are elusive

MIDDLEBURY — The rough start for the Middlebury College men’s hockey team continued this past weekend, when the Panthers dropped their season’s first two home games, both to NESCAC foes, 4-2 to Connecticut on Friday and 5-3 to Tufts on Saturday.
The Panthers are now in uncharted territory for the storied program — 0-6 despite being competitive in all of their games. Only once have they lost by more than two goals, at NCAA Division III power Plattsburgh, 5-2, and in that contest they rallied from a 2-0 hole to tie the game before the Cardinals scored three times in the third, including an empty-netter.
This past Friday they led Connecticut after two periods before falling short in the third period, and on Saturday Tufts led by 5-1 before the Panthers fought back.
After Saturday’s game second-year Coach Neil Sinclair pointed to the team’s grit as a plus.
“They’re trying. They’re working. And I thought they played hard in the last 10 minutes trying to find their way, so there are some positives there,” Sinclair said. “We’ll work to keep building on that.”
Sinclair and his assistants are trying to integrate young players — nine freshmen skated regular shifts vs. Tufts — while at the same time dealing with several injuries. Sinclair wouldn’t say who was hurt, but three players on the roster who played at least 17 games last winter did not skate on Saturday: junior defenseman Zach Weier, sophomore defenseman Matt Doherty and sophomore forward Kamil Tkaczuk.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys, and it’s going to take some time for everybody to adjust to college hockey. We’ve also had some injuries to key guys, so you have some guys playing roles that they haven’t played before,” Sinclair said. “So there just has to be a lot of teaching going on in practice in terms of D zone, neutral zone, offensive zone, getting a lot of guys going.”
Given the dual challenges of inexperience and injury, Sinclair said he is not disappointed in the Panthers’ commitment. 
“Overall, we’re real proud of their effort and how hard they’re working, and I think they’re going to do just fine,” he said. “It’s just going to take some time.”
CAMELS, 4-2
On Friday, the Panthers outshot Connecticut, 22-8, through two periods in taking a 2-1 lead. Middlebury scored first in the opening period. Trevor Turnbull won the puck in the corner and tossed it toward the slot. It banked off of the side of the net to Vincent Gisonti, and he backhanded a shot past Camel goalie Austin Essery at 12:58.
The Camels (1-5, 1-3 NESCAC) knotted the score 11:33 into the middle stanza. Jon Paris caused a turnover behind the Middlebury net and found Jeff Thompson at the bottom of the left circle. Thompson lifted a shot into the upper right corner.
Gisonti struck again with 3:52 left in the period. The Panther forward took a pass from Joey Piccinini as he cut through the slot. Essery stopped Gisonti’s initial bid, but he netted the rebound.
Then the Camels outshot the Panthers, 15-4, in the third period, scoring three times in the first 9:55. They tied the game 2:44 into the period on a power play: Jacob Moreau blasted a shot from the slot through traffic. Just over four minutes later, Jon Paris poked in a rebound. The Camels made it 4-2 at 9:55, when Kevin Doyle stole the puck at center ice, skated in and wristed a shot from the left circle off the post and in.
Panther goalie Stephen Klein made 19 saves, while Essery made 22 stops as the Camels ended a 17-game winless streak (0-16-1).
TUFTS, 5-3
Tufts improved to 5-1-1, 3-0-1 NESCAC, by winning on Saturday. The Jumbos outshot the Panthers, 40-31, and scored three power-play goals, with both those numbers boosted by the 10 penalties assessed to Middlebury, compared to four on Tufts.
Sinclair was asked if he thought the Panthers could afford to take so many penalties.
“I don’t disagree,” he said. “I’m going to have to look at the film, though, to really decide how I feel about some of the calls.”
All three goals scored in the first period, two by Tufts, came at even strength, although the Panthers — notably freshman defenseman Brendan Dawson, forward Greg Conrad and defenseman Spencer Cage — launched several good bids on Jumbo goalie Mason Pulde (28 saves) on an early power play.
Tufts took the lead at 6:45 when Oliver Takacsi-Nagy circled clockwise from behind the net and launched a backhand on Panther freshman goalie Brian Ketchabaw. Ketchabaw (35 saves) made the stop, but Takacsi-Nagy had time — maybe too much — to net the rebound.
Conrad equalized at 8:13, tipping home a shot from the center point by defenseman Andrew Neary, as two of the team’s four seniors combined, with the second assist going to Mark Lyman.
Tufts took the lead at 12:18, when Clay Berger, in a scrum at the left post, poked home the rebound of a David Lackner wraparound bid.
In the second period, the Panthers killed two penalties well, with good work from Mark McLellan and Danny Jacobs. But back-to-back penalties late in the period created a five-on-three for Tufts, and Sean Kavanagh slapped home a one-timer from the top of the left circle. Through two periods, the Jumbos outshot the Panthers, 27-17.
Two more power play goals in the first 6:10 of the third made it 5-1. Kavanagh skated left-to-right through the slot and whipped a shot inside the left post on another five-on-three chance, and at 13:50 Tyler Scroggins beat Ketchabaw with a low shot from the right circle.
Then the Panthers, who outshot the Jumbos by 14-13 in the period, came to life. At 10:56 Mitchell Allen made it 5-2 on a power play, one-timing a Neary pass from the left circle, with Dawson also assisting. At 14:04, Conrad made it 5-3. As he exited the penalty box, Conrad picked up a puck that McLellan chopped out of the zone, skated into the Jumbo end and beat Pulde with a low wrister. The Panthers pulled Ketchabaw with 2:29 to go and had a couple chances, but couldn’t convert.
Sinclair believes games like this past weekend’s will begin to tilt the other way as the Panthers get healthier — and more experienced.
“I think there’s a bunch of very good hockey players on this team. They’re very young. They’re trying to find their way. They’re doing the best they can,” he said. “They’re going to put it together. It’s just going to take some time.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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