Panther men’s hockey falls at home tourney

MIDDLEBURY — Despite speed in its play and flashes of promise, the young Middlebury College men’s hockey team came up short twice this past weekend, when the Panthers hosted the PrimeLink Great Northern Shootout.
On Friday Lawrence (Wisc.) pulled away late to defeat Middlebury, 6-3, and on Saturday Norwich bested the Panthers by what could be fairly called a misleading 5-1 final.
Coach Neil Sinclair’s young Panthers are coming off a three-win season and fell to 0-4 with those results. But Sinclair believes there is reason for hope for a team with only five seniors and five juniors on a roster of more than 30 and is relying on young players in key roles.
Sinclair said as the team matures, both in adapting to the speed of the college game and in learning to be smarter about penalties, he expects its fortunes to improve, especially if it can maintain the positive frame of mind it has displayed so far.
“I’m obviously disappointed. We’re disappointed in the last two years, and that’s hard,” Sinclair said. “But I think in terms of the energy and the enthusiasm, yes, we’re feeling good about it. We feel like we’ve got a really good core.”
“Pushing through” mental hurdles will pose as big a challenge as any, he said.
“It’s learning how to win hockey games. And that’s the hard part for us now, figuring that part of things out and understanding how to manage those key moments in the game,” Sinclair said. “It’s managing those moments and getting through them. And with our youth that’s part of the culture we’re trying to rebuild again. It’s developing the winning attitude and how do you win games and close them out.”
For example, vs. Norwich the Panthers were outplaying the Cadets in the first period, in which they ended up outshooting Norwich, 9-6. But a five-minute major penalty killed their momentum and allowed Norwich to escape the period with a 1-1 tie. The Panthers then controlled play early in the second, but then allowed a goal against the run of play, and Norwich seized the momentum.
“We took a five-minute major in the first period,” Sinclair said. “We had to get through it, and we almost did. I thought we were playing really well, and then we hit a lull in the second, and we just couldn’t get through it. Part of it is our youth, and part of it is us just trying to get confident and get through those moments. And those are some of the hurdles we have to get over.”
In Saturday’s first period Norwich goalie Tom Aubrun made solid stops on Panther freshman Michael Fahie (twice) and sophomores Trevor Turnbull and Danny Tighe as the Panthers launched the game’s first five shots, three on an early power play.
But a boarding major at 5:30 opened the door for the 5-3-1 Cadets, who after sophomore goalie Brian Ketchabaw stopped two shots and junior defenseman Jimmy McKee blocked another, took the lead at 9:05. Kale Kane did the damage with a high shot from the bottom of the right wing circle.
Fahie, who was named to the all-tournament team, equalized for Middlebury at 14:38, when he tipped McKee’s shot from the right point inside the far post, with sophomore center Owen Powers getting the second assist.
Early in the second Aubrun denied junior Kamil Tkaczuk from the high slot and then made a kick save on freshman defender Eric Jeremiah as the Panthers pressed. Ketchabaw made two stops on Jack Griffin, but Middlebury had the territory.
But the Cadets’ Jordan Hall struck next. He beat a Panther defender to the bottom of the right wing circle, and his shot from a sharp angle trickled in off Ketchabaw at 6:31. Norwich picked up the pace and, Taeron Lewis scored three minutes later, roofing the rebound of a Christian Thompson wraparound bid.
David Robertson made it 4-1 on the power play at 13:32, blasting a one-timer from the center point that beat Ketchabaw, who finished his afternoon with 13 saves: Sinclair then put senior Stephen Klein in goal. Ketchabaw, after an excellent .919 save percentage a year ago, has stopped pucks at a .733 clip in three appearances, one start, this winter. Klein made 15 saves and allowed one score, Alec Brandrup’s screened shot at 14:12 of the third from the top of right circle.
The Panthers’ best chances in the third came on a McKee deflection with 3:12 to go and a Mark McLellan bid at 1:40, but Aubrun smothered both.
On Friday Lawrence (which fell to Plattsburgh, 4-2, in Saturday’s tourney final) scored three times in the final 8:20, including an empty-netter, to defeat Middlebury, 6-3.  
Fahie’s first career goal gave Middlebury the lead 3:32 into the game. Powers won a faceoff back to freshman defender Ryan Ashe, and Fahie redirected Ashe’s shot. The Vikings’ Zach Briscoe tied the game about three minutes later, and Middlebury regained the lead at 8:59, when Tkaczuk took a Fahie pass in the slot and pinged a shot in off the left post with the teams skating four-on-four.
Lawrence knotted the score at 2-2 at 8:59 of the second on a Matt Beranek one-timer from the right circle after a Panther turnover. Late in the period the Panthers got the short end of the calls when a rare fight broke out, with Middlebury receiving a two-minute minute and a five-minute major and game misconduct to Vincent Gisonti, while the Lawrence received two minors even though Lawrence instigated the fray. Gisonti then had to sit out on Saturday.
In the third period, the Vikings still had power-play time, but Lawrence goalie Evan Cline had to use his left pad to deny Alex Heinritz’ shorthanded breakaway. Less than a minute after Middlebury successful killed off the penalty Viking Jack Roeper scored from the slot to make it 3-2.
Middlebury tied the game at 8:51 when Powers scored his first career goal. Powers cut into the high slot from the right-wing circle and ripped a wrister home. But at 11:40 Lawrence took advantage of a failed clear, and Nick Felan tapped in a shot that bounced off the boards behind the net.
The Panthers pressed for the equalizer, but Lawrence’s Josh Koepplinger made it 5-3 with 2:55 to go on a two-on-one break, and an empty-netter created the final. Klein finished with 30 saves, while Cline made 24 stops for Lawrence.
Sinclair said he can point to costly mental mistakes in each of their four games, but can also fairly state the Panthers “play with pace and energy” and have plenty of potential.
“I think we’re playing really well in spurts,” he said. “We’re playing the high-tempo, high-pressure game we want to play, and we’re doing it really well, and there are times when it breaks down. And those are the things we’re working on fixing.”

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