Focus and hard work sparking men’s hockey

MIDDLEBURY — After Saturday’s 6-2 victory over visiting Tufts, one of the Middlebury College hockey players in the hallway outside the locker room grabbed a broom and brushed it across the floor to cheers from his teammates, who then cranked up celebratory music behind the closed door.
Yes, that win completed a weekend home sweep of two NESCAC rivals for the 4-2 Panthers, who had defeated Connecticut, 4-2, on Friday. 
And why not celebrate, at least just a little: Their 3-1 league record puts them in second place in NESCAC. And the Panthers’ total of four wins equals their count from all of the 2017-2018 season, and exceeds by one their victories from the season before that. 
So, senior forward and tri-captain Kamil Tkaczuk — senior defender/forward Jimmy McKee and junior forward Owen Powers are the other captains — just what’s going on here?
Hard work and better chemistry, he answered. 
MIDDLEBURY FORWARD JOHN Scala (39) skates out from behind the net to score with a backhander in the second period to put the Panthers ahead, 2-0, on their way to a 4-2 win over Connecticut College on Friday.
Photo by Steve James
“Last year was tough. We had a tough year, obviously. And coming back in the spring last year, the captains, with Jimmy and Owen, we really focused on fixing the culture, fixing the work ethic,” said Tkaczuk, who chipped in a goal and two assists on Saturday. 
“I think that’s the biggest thing, plus people buying into what we’re doing. And I think we had problems with that in the past. I think that’s what it comes down to now. Everyone’s buying in. We have four lines going, six defensemen doing, and everyone’s on the same page. Everyone’s pulling that rope together as a team.”
When Coach Neil Sinclair was asked how his team on Saturday bounced back from a 2-1 second-period deficit with five straight goals, he offered a big-picture answer that echoed Tkaczuk.
“For us it started last spring. They made a commitment, and they knew they wanted to get better, and they’ve been working hard at it ever since,” Sinclair said. “It’s their work ethic and it’s their drive, and they’ve just got a fortitude to them now that they just know they can get it done.”
MIDDLEBURY GOALTENDER ADAM Wisco makes one of his 35 saves against Connecticut College in Friday’s 4-2 victory for his first win in a Panther jersey. Wisco made 25 saves the next night against Tufts.
Photo by Steve James
It doesn’t hurt that the Panthers are finding the net this season. Through six games they are averaging 3.5 goals, that after averaging just fewer than 1.4 goals per game last season. 
Again, Tkaczuk weighed in, saying both the team has a better “shape to the offense” that gives the Panthers a better sense of where each other will be, and that they are keeping it simple. 
“That’s a lot of fun. We had problems with that last year, too. I think the biggest thing is we’re playing our game. We’re not trying to get fancy. We’re throwing pucks at the net. We are all on the same page,” he said. “So we all have the same plan to get the puck to the net, get the sticks on the ice hard and just jam the net.”
Sinclair said the improved performance comes from dedication at practice.
“We made a commitment at the beginning of the season that practice was going to be harder than game, and they took it upon themselves to switch their off-ice workout and they brought it over to practice. They’ve been great at practice,” Sinclair said. “So you get in those situations in the games, and it makes it easier.”
At the same time, he said, the hard work has been blended with an element of relaxation and with the knowledge that the hard work should pay off. 
“I think everybody’s a little bit looser,” Sinclair said. “We’ve been focusing on having fun and being loose in practice and shooting pucks, and we’ve just been trying to keep things as light as possible knowing that we’re going to be OK, and I think it shows in the game.”
Certainly in both games this past weekend the Panthers made plays when they were challenged. On Friday they took the lead on an early power-play goal: Michael Fahie deflected in a McKee shot from the point.  
MIDDLEBURY FORWARD EMACK Bentley is congratulated at the bench after his empty-net goal clinched Friday’s 4-2 win over Connecticut College.
Photo by Steve James
Middlebury freshman goalie Adam Wisco, who picked up both wins this past weekend, made big saves midway through the first period on back-to-back opportunities, first denying Greg Pezza’s shot from close range, and then robbing Anthony Quateri at the right post.
Panther John Scala made it 2-0 1:29 into the second period with his first college goal, winning the puck deep in the zone and converting a wraparound shot.
The Camels (1-4-1) pulled even with two Jacob Moreau mid-period power-play goals. His shot from the left circle hit traffic and fluttered over Wisco, and for his second strike he circled into the slot and wristing a shot home.
Cole Joslin gave Middlebury the lead back with 56.9 seconds remaining in the period. Danny Tighe won a faceoff in the right circle and Joslin took the puck to the slot and beat Camel goalie Connor Rodericks (31 saves) from close range.
In the final period the Camels’ best chance came with 3:38 remaining, but Wisco (35 saves) stopped Matt Michaud’s partial breakaway up the right side. Emack Bentley sealed the win for the Panthers with an empty-netter. 
TUFTS GOALKEEPER DREW Hotte looks back at the puck forward Kamil Tkaczuk slipped past him in the first period Saturday; Middlebury went on to beat Tufts 6-2.
Photo by Steve James
On Saturday Tufts (3-4) took the lead in the fourth minute, when Clay Berger poked home the rebound of a Ross Delabruere shot from the left dot. Tkaczuk equalized about two minutes later: Fahie centered the puck from behind the Tufts net to Tkaczuk, who tucked a shot from the right side of the crease inside the far post, with Bentley also assisting. Wisco made three of his 25 saves on a Tufts power play, and the 1-1 score stood after one period. 
Tufts took the lead on a five-on-three power play 5:53 into the second period.
Then the Panthers took the game over. Fahie tied the score on a two-on-one break 1:14 later by burying a Bentley right-to-left centering pass inside the far post. Zach Shapiro gave the Panthers the lead with 3:56 left in the period. Powers won a battle for the puck in the left corner and made a no-look pass to set up Shapiro in the slot. With 4.1 seconds left in the period, Fahie netted a spinning backhander at the top of the crease after taking a pass from Tkaczuk.
In the third period the Panthers nailed down the win with early and late goals. Thirty-four seconds in Powers swatted home a puck Shapiro fed into the slot, and with nine seconds to go Matt Danner swept in a Joslin pass on a power play. Camel goalie Drew Hotte stopped 31 shots. 
Tough games await, including Hamilton on Friday night and Amherst on Saturday, both at home, as the Panthers wrap up their first semester. 
PANTHER GOALIE ADAM Wisco makes a save during Middlebury’s 6-2 win over Tufts on Saturday. The freshman from Ontario stopped 60 shots in two games and was named NESCAC Player of the Week.
Photo by Steve James
Tkaczuk said he is confident the Panthers can continue to compete if they stick with what has worked for them so far.  
“Every day at the rink we’re always looking to get better. There’s always improvement to be made. I think we know that, and there are going to be great teams we’ll be playing up ahead,” Tkaczuk said. “But we’ve just to keep on getting pucks deep, making the little plays, and just our work ethic. I think that’s the biggest thing. We can skate with any team in the country if we just keep working at it.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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